Despite the tsunami of braindead katakana loanwords that has swept over Japanese and destroyed any incentive to create new words that actually mean something, there are certain fields where kanji compounds still dominate and prove their superior ability to express any idea, no matter how complex.
One such field is politics, and ironically, in discussions of the US presidential elections, you'll see almost no katakana loanwords being used; old-school kanji compounds are out in force to define how the Japanese perceive the process of selecting the next 大統領 (if current trends continue, in a few years we may have to talk about a プレジデント; but for now, the US president is still a 大統領). Besides giving us the vocabulary to discuss the election, some of these words are in themselves a great opportunity to learn about how kanji are used in practice.
In Japanese, the two main American parties (政党) are called 民主党 (the Democratic Party) and 共和党 (the Republican Party). 民主 is basically an abbreviation of 国民主権 — "the sovereignty (主権) of the people (国民)". Meanwhile, 共和, "common harmony", is the translation of the origin of "republic" — the latin expression "res publica", which literally means "public thing" and suggests "the common good" (read more on the Japanese Wikipedia).
But in fact, the term 共和 is even older than Rome. It was originally a historical Chinese name: the Gonghe Regency, which ruled during an interregnum (political discontinuity) in the Zhou Dynasty after King Li was deposed and before his the ascension of his successor, King Xuan (a period that corresponded to the years 841–848 BC). The name was adopted in modern times by Japanese thinkers as a translation for "republic" because this historical period had been defined by common rule by feudal lords in the absence of a king.
Who's doing the electing?
Since the presidential election process in the US is indirect, in many languages it can be tricky to express the difference between voters and electors. But thanks to the availability of kanji this challenge is easily overcome, sparing Japanese the need to import "elector" as yet another katakana loanword.
The Japanese word for a voter is 有権者, lit. "one who has the right" of voting, or in other words, an eligible voter. As you can see, this word cleverly avoids mentioning the actual idea of voting, and only refers to the legal right to vote. This somehow makes sense in Japan, where voter turnout rates have been quite low for many years.
On the other hand, an elector in the US context is simply 選挙人, "a person who elects", while the Electoral College is referred to as 選挙人団, lit. "the elector body" or "the elector group". To be elected, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes; a majority is 過半数 — lit. "the number surpassing one half".
Election Day fever
The word for "vote" is 投票, literally "casting a ballot". Election Day is 投票日, but watch out for that last character: the word is pronounced とうひょうび, with 日 in kun-yomi, just like one of the first Japanese words you learned — 誕生日. This pattern of reading 日 in kun-yomi when it's attached to standalone on-yomi compounds is quite common, so remember it as a strong possibility whenever you see similarly-constructed words.
When Election Day ends they start counting the ballots — which is called 開票, "opening the ballot". At the end of this process we can hopefully know which of the two presidential candidates (大統領候補者) won the election (当選).
The word for candidate, 候補者, is one of those cases where the kanji meanings don't seem to add up intuitively. Both 候 and 補 are multiple-meaning characters, and the meanings that are relevant to this word are otherwise uncommon in modern Japanese.
候 is used here in the sense of "await", as in waiting for something important to happen. 補 means a vacant official post, and also indicates the act of ordering a person to fill that post. So 候補者 is literally "a person waiting to fill a vacant official post" — in just three characters!
After all is said and done and the political hangover goes away, a presidential inauguration ceremony (大統領就任式) will be held on January 20 — and then we can finally give these words a rest for… well, a few moments before this endless cycle begins tormenting us all over again.
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