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Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012
2012: a year of low points
For many people in Japan, the past year felt like a doubly busy year. In 2011, life here seemed to be on hold, waiting for the next earthquake, tsunami or radiation disaster. But by the end of 2012, the regular rhythms, worries and needs of the country started to return to normal. The past year was a year of records, nearly all of them low points.
Nature did seem to give Japan a reprieve in 2012. Despite intense heat and humidity during the summer months, and a 7.3-magnitude earthquake on Dec. 7 that brought back bad memories, what seemed most distressing were the government reports about the 3/11 catastrophe that pinned blame for the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe on human-made, rather than natural, causes.
Even before those reports were released, anti-nuclear protests gained steam in Japan and continued regularly throughout the year. There were large gatherings in Yoyogi and Hibiya parks as well as an anti-nuclear power vigil in front of the prime minister's official residence every Friday.
Despite several marches being larger than any in Japan in decades, the government caved in to pressure from power companies to restart nuclear reactors.
Other protests focused on Okinawa. After the alleged rape of a Japanese woman by two sailors, a sexual assault on a woman and a bizarre house entry and assault on a teenage boy, the American military authorities put servicemen in Japan on a semi-permanent curfew and banned the drinking of alcohol off base.
In the meantime, Osprey aircraft were deployed and plans to transfer the Futenma air station to another site on Okinawa Island remained unchanged.
Both decisions rode roughshod over Okinawan sentiment and drew large protests.
December elections brought back an old regime with the resurrection of the Liberal Democratic Party and a former prime minister, Mr. Shinzo Abe, who was re-elected again at the close of December. After Americans returned Democratic President Barack Obama to a second four-year term, Japanese voters dumped the Democratic Party of Japan for politicians who expressed conservative and hawkish views.
The return to leadership of the long-powerful LDP may have seemed comforting to many people following the constant missteps of the DPJ, especially after the 3/11 disasters. But the election campaign also saw the rise of a new party, Nihon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) under the guidance of Mr. Shintaro Ishihara, who had quit the Tokyo governorship to join Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto at the party's helm.
The new party seemed set on stirring up confrontation with China and South Korea rather than on actually offering serious solutions to Japan's problems. With both China and South Korea also coming under new leadership this year, 2013 may well find these East Asian frictions worsening.
The Japanese economy seemed to edge further into recession throughout the year, with lower rates of growth reported.
The troubling status of Japanese corporate giants such as Panasonic, Sharp and Sony became evident as these once-mighty companies posted massive losses and 30-year trading lows. They eliminated a total of nearly 30,000 jobs worldwide.
Toyota Motor Corp. agreed to pay up to $1.4 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit, the largest amount ever, over alleged acceleration and braking problems with some of its vehicles in the United States.
From Olympus to Tokyo Electric Power Co., companies in Japan were embroiled in revelations of inner dysfunction that caused serious problems.
The average person in Japan also faced difficulties. A larger percentage of Japanese workers than ever before are now classified as irregular workers — more than one-third of all workers according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. They generally receive lower pay and fewer benefits than regular workers.
The percentage for female workers was even worse, with 55 percent now classified as irregular. That was a large part of why Japan ranked 101st out of 135 countries worldwide in a gender equality ranking this year.
Record lows were also reached this year in other social issues such as bullying, with a doubling of the number of cases reported from the year before.
The increase from 70,000 cases of bullying reported at schools in 2011 to 140,000 cases in 2012 may signal a more accurate confrontation with this chronic problem.
Another record was reached in 2012 when the average number of people per household dropped to 1.99, the lowest ever. That means that as Japan becomes an increasingly graying society, it is also becoming a more isolated one for many of its citizens.
Some good news did come through the steady drumbeat of bad news, however.
The Japanese women's soccer team and other Japanese athletes won a record 38 medals at the London summer Olympics.
The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to Japanese scientist Dr. Shinya Yamanaka for his work on pluripotent stem cells.
Furthering the sense of hope, Tokyo Skytree opened to great enthusiasm and huge lines last summer, becoming the second-tallest structure in the world.
Despite problematic behavior by some of the visitors to the new tourist site, the view from the top seemed to let some people look past the generally gloomy prospects below and at least imagine a more hopeful vision for 2013.
The Japan Times would like to wish its readers a prosperous, safe and joyful New Year in 2013.