Asia's Year in Words

At year’s end it is a time to look back over the past 12 months – in words. The events in Asia during the past year, large and small, threw up numerous colorful words in half a dozen languages that helped to frame the events of 2011 but also to lift the corner on the deeper aspects of Asian life and culture. Here are a few of them.

The mammoth earthquake/tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast coast in the afternoon of March 11, precipitating multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station gave rise to the phrase Fukushima Fifty. It referred to a small but intrepid band of nuclear power plant workers who braved high levels of radiation to help bring the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant under control.

The term Fukushima Fifty was always a bit of hype, more popular in the West than in Japan, in that many more nuclear power plant workers, soldiers and others, some 19,000 in total, labored to bring the plants safely under control by the time they were finally declared to be in safe “cold shutdown” condition in mid-December.

Another term stemming from the nuclear accident, fly-jin, enjoyed a brief vogue referring to those foreigners who fled Japan – or at least Tokyo – shortly after the nuclear crisis to escape possible advancing radiation exposure, only to return sheepishly later. In Japanese the word jin means person, and the new word is a takeoff on gaijin, the Japanese word for foreigner.

The Japanese word for conserving electricity, setsudan, became the byword during the summer after the nuclear crisis resulted in many more plant closures across Japan, sparking fears of rolling blackouts in the capital, Tokyo, and a plea to conserve electricity. The two Chinese characters for setsudan were seen on notices everywhere, explaining that this elevator or that escalator was out of service, this building had dimmed its lights or curtailed operating hours to save on electricity.

In July Japan’s woman’s national soccer team Nadeshiko lifted everybody spirits in a country hungry for good news after their country’s greatest post-war disaster by beating the US women’s soccer team to win 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament, The women were the first Japanese, male or female, to win a World Cup championship, and they became instant celebrities creating the new term Nadeshiko Power, after a hardy, pink-frilled carnation native to Japan. The word was chosen as Japan’s “top buzzword of the year” for 2011.

The body of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who died of a heart attack on Dec. 17 at age 69 lay in state in Pyongyang covered by a red blanket and surrounded by bouquets of red kimjongilia, literally the “flower of Kim Jong-il”. It is a hybrid of the begonia family, originally bred by a Japanese admirer and botanist named Motoderu Kamo to honor the North Korean leader on his 46th birthday in 1988. The flower is now widespread across North Korea and supposedly blooms every year around February 16, which is the late Dear Leader’s birthday.

Lese-majeste is a French term, meaning an insult to the monarch, that may seem quaint and old fashioned, like something connected with Louis IV, but it was wielded with a vengeance in Thailand in 2011 and appears likely to be wielded again with a vengeance in 2012. The term refers to draconian laws that make it a crime punishable of up to 15 years in prison for insulting the monarch or members of his family. One Thai-born American citizen was convicted of lese-majeste this year for tweeting passages from a banned, unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol. The US State Department’s defense of its citizen for this outrageous human right violation was tepid to say the least.

The growing gap between the rich elite and the masses of the poor in China spawned a new phrase to describe the sons and daughters of rich people, usually translated as second-generation rich or simply “rich kids.” Some fu er dai live dissolute lives of conspicuous consumption; others labor faithfully to maintain and expand the family enterprises that made them rich in the first place. Resentment was building in China not just because of the widening income gap but also the privileges that they see accruing to the ruling elite, such as use of fancy luxury cars while the ordinary children were killed in school bus accidents.

All of India was captivated by a latter-day Gandhi named “Anna” Hazare. He promised to “fast to the death” until parliament passed the Lokpal bill, the anti-corruption law in India long sought by activists. The literal meaning of lokpal is something like protector of the people, but it is usually translated as citizens’ ombudsman. First introduced into the Indian parliament in 1968, the Lokpal Bill had been reintroduced and defeated nine times, until in summer of 2011 it became the goal of a massive protest movement led by Hazare, who seemed to tap into nostalgia for purer days in the struggle for independence

South Korea’s government ran into a buzz-saw of opposition when it attempted to change its tax laws to make Islamic bonds, known in Arabic as sukuk, easier to sell and thus help Korean companies raise capital for large Middle East construction projects. Sukuk is an Islamic financial instrument similar to a bond that complies with the Quranic proscription against usury. The issuer sells a certificate to a buyer who “rents” it back at a predetermined price. However, vocal opposition from the leaders of Korea’s huge Protestant mega-churches, who feared the spread of shariah law in the country, helped to kill the legislation, showing that America isn’t the only place where conservatives fret about the “advance” of Shariah law.

When Yoshihiko Noda became prime minister of Japan this year, he self-effacingly described himself as a dojo, the name for a common bottom feeding eel found slithering at the mud of rivers and canals. Noda was quoting the calligrapher and poet Mitsuo Aida who wrote that “a dojo does not have to emulate a goldfish.” In the English vernacular, it was sort of like saying he considered himself a work horse, not a show horse. For the average Japanese the dojo is a staple of hot-pot dishes. It contains high levels of calcium and vitamins, which supposedly boost stamina.