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The year in quotes: 25 windows on the way things were in 2012

by David Mcneill

It was a year dominated by Japan’s spats with its most powerful neighbors, China and South Korea, over tiny specks in the sea, and by national soul-searching over nuclear power and the calamity that struck Japan in March 2011. It ended with the stunning political resurrection of the Liberal Democratic Party. In between, there were memorable faux pas on homosexuality, welfare and official sexism.

Rattle those rusty sabers

1. “I want to make sure that Japan does not become another Tibet,” said then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in April, launching a plan to buy three of the disputed Senkaku Islands from their private owner. The 80-year-old warhorse showed throughout the year that he had lost none of his verbal flair for incendiary bon mots, or ability to antagonize Beijing.

2. In November, Ishihara said it was “high time” that Japan considered possessing nuclear arms as a deterrent against China, a country he repeatedly called “Shina,” a term widely considered derogatory, if not racist. “It is not a bad word in Japanese,” he later told a packed talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, entirely missing the point. And his curt verdict on triggering the hugely expensive Sino-Japan spat? “It was worth it.”

Once as tragedy, twice as farce

3. “I have said (repeatedly) that there was no Nanjing Massacre,” Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura told reporters after he astonished a visiting delegation of officials from Nanjing, Nagoya’s sister city, by saying he “doubted” Japanese troops had massacred Chinese civilians there in 1937. The reason? His father was there in 1945 and was “well received.”

4. It was another rich year for whitewashers of history. In August, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto tweeted at length about the “comfort women” issue, urging the “Korean side to produce proof” they actually existed. In October, the LDP’s Shinzo Abe told reporters after he visited the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial that he wanted to “show respect to the spirits of the war dead,” including, presumably, the convicted criminals who led Japan’s disastrous Pacific war.

Whatever you do, don’t tell the truth

5. Along with car sales and plane tickets, another casualty of the Sino-Japan spat was diplomatic careers. Uichiro Niwa, Japan’s ambassador to China, was sacked in August, two months after accurately predicting in The Financial Times that nationalizing the Senkaku Islands would trigger “an extremely grave crisis in relations between Japan and China.”

6. Ishihara led the calls for Niwa’s head, saying he failed to make clear the islands are “an integral part of Japanese territory.” Before heading into the diplomatic sunset, Niwa made another stab at speaking truth to power, warning that the dispute could set back bilateral ties more than four decades. “The Japanese government and the public do not appear to be fully aware of the sweeping change in the mood in China.”

Look back in anger

7. 2012 saw four major reports about the 3/11 catastrophe. The most widely read was the Diet Commission probe into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was, in the now famous words of chair Kiyoshi Kurokawa, “made in Japan.” “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; and our ‘insularity.’ ”

8. The explanation, seemingly absolving any person or corporation of any blame for the disaster, had been road-tested in March by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who said “everyone has to share the pain of responsibility” for what happened because “no individual” was to blame. Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s disgraced ex-chief Masataka Shimizu quietly parachuted into a directorship at Fuji Oil. At least nine more directors found lucrative post-Tepco positions.

Thanks a lot . . .

9. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan ended the year losing his Tokyo constituency seat, a humiliating turnaround for a politician feted by some for saving Tokyo. Speaking on behalf of an independent panel of experts who investigated the response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, lawyer Akihisa Shiozaki characterized the government’s overall response as “crude, reactionary, but lucky.” Nobody was “even remotely prepared” for what happened, he said.

10. But Kan’s decision to confront Tepco amid rumors on March 15, 2011, that it was preparing to abandon the Fukushima No. 1 plant was “critical,” Shiozaki acknowledged. “The worst would have happened, for sure. Fukushima would totally have gone out of control. Six power plants exploding. Four spent fuels evaporating. And east Japan would probably have been a disaster.”

People power

11. “Japan is going to destroy itself by building nuclear plants in such an earthquake-prone country,” said a man at Tokyo’s biggest protest in a generation, the 170,000-strong July 16 antinuclear rally in Yoyogi Park. The event climaxed a string of under-reported protests — the Yomiuri Shimbun didn’t even bother to cover it.

12. “I think that March 11 has given us Japanese an important moral,” said veteran antinuclear activist and author Kenzaburo Oe. “Nuclear energy is fundamentally mistaken.” Prime Minister Noda didn’t agree. On the hottest day of the summer so far, he said, “We must ask ourselves whether we can really make do without nuclear power.”

Press wars

13. A minor confrontation with major implications for press freedom in Japan spilled out into the courts. All summer, freelance journalist Yu Terasawa demanded he be allowed to film antinuclear protestors outside the Prime Minister’s Official Residence from the Diet press club building just across the road. But the head of the press club, Toshiyuki Saga, barred him from even entering the building because he was not a press club member. “You don’t have the right to report here,” said Saga.

14. “You do not have the right to block our right to report because this building is paid for by public taxes,” retorted Terasawa. Saga is seen in a video clip of the encounter physically blocking the entrance to the building. Terasawa has since sued the Diet press club, supported by journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which calls the obstruction “arbitrary and illegal” and another example of the press clubs’ “systematic contempt” for an “entire part of the reporting community.”

Bald men fighting over a comb

15. In a September editorial, The Yomiuri Shimbun called Seoul’s claims to the Senkaku/Dokdo Islands “far-fetched” and sniffed that South Korean President Lee Myung Bak had gone “beyond acceptable limits” by visiting them the month before. Lee then infuriated the Yomiuri and conservative Japanese when he reportedly said the Emperor would have to “apologize to victims of Japan’s colonial rule” before he could visit the country. (It wasn’t clear if this is what he actually said.)

16. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda lamented that Lee’s hardline stance against Japan was “regrettable and hard to understand,” though it was in fact perfectly understandable: Lee was playing domestic politics after three meetings with Noda failed to produce any further Japanese apology or compensation for Korea’s wartime sex slaves, known euphemistically as “comfort women.”

No laughing matter

17. May was a bad month for comedians. Junichi Komoto, of the hit duo Jicho Kacho, was forced to make a humiliating mea culpa after women’s magazine Josei Seven reported that his mother had been collecting welfare as he raked in an estimated ¥50 million a year. “I feel sorry for taxpayers,” said Komoto, promising to pay all the money back. “My way of thinking was too naive. I sincerely apologize for that.”

18. “If you support gay marriage then eventually you would support marriage to an animal,” said “Beat” Takeshi Kitano during a May 12 current affairs variety show. The typically barbed comment from Japan’s most famous “comedian,” equating bestiality with homosexuality, was passed off as a joke and mostly ignored at home.

19. But Kitano later tried to explain, apparently mindful, says Japan Times’ columnist Philip Brasor, of his reputation abroad after the story was picked up by AFP. “I was only talking about people who love their pets so much that they may think of marrying them,” he said. “There is no way I look at gay people the same as animals, let alone implying sexual relations with animals.” As Brasor later said, the explanation didn’t convince anyone, and sounded as if he was “accusing the foreign press of having a dirty mind.”

Sisters at the back

20. Japan’s women’s soccer squad rallied a grieving nation by bagging the 2011 World Cup. But by 2012 it seems they were back to being second-class — or at least economy-class — citizens. Star player Homare Sawa inadvertently triggered controversy in July when she casually revealed that while the men’s Olympic squad luxuriated in business class on the plane to London, the women sat back in economy. “I guess it should have been the other way around,” she said. “Even just in terms of age, we are senior.”

21. Sawa appealed to the better instincts of the Olympic organizers, letting it be known they could make amends: “When we won the World Cup, our seats were changed to business class for our return flight,” she said expectantly. But in the end, the team lost to the U.S. in the Olympic final.

Political Lazarus

22. In December, Japan’s electorate trudged to the polls again for what has become a grim annual rite of passage. But with much less enthusiasm than before — 11 million fewer people voted than in the landmark election of 2009. “I’m running on behalf of the weak,” said Ryokichi Kawashima, at 94 the nation’s oldest political candidate. A war veteran, Kawashima spent his own funeral money to run out of fear that rightwing candidates like Abe and Ishihara would “make a mess of things.”

23. It seems nobody was listening. Abe won, jolted out of his political torpor by tensions with Beijing — and new drugs to tame his irritable bowels. “Japan’s beautiful seas and its territory are under threat, and young people are having trouble finding hope in the future amid the economic slump,” he said in December. “I promise to protect Japan’s land and sea, and the lives of the Japanese people no matter what.”

24. Ruling Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers woke up on Monday, Dec. 17, to find they’d been trounced by the LDP just three years after they thought they’d pounded a stake through its sclerotic heart. The atmosphere at their first postelection meeting was memorably described by the reliably tart education minister, Makiko Tanaka, as “like a wake.” “When the prime minister dissolved the Lower House, I knew it was going to be suicidal, and that’s what it was,” she said.

And finally . . .

25. “Wild, darō?” (“I’m wild, right?”) is Japan’s top buzzword of 2012. The catchphrase of comedian Sugi-chan, he lived up to the boast by breaking his back after jumping off a 10-meter diving board while filming a variety show in September. How’s that for wild?

Illustrations by Chris Mackenzie. Send comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

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From Jan. 1, the Tuesday Zeit Gist column and its monthly sister feature, Light Gist, will be merged under a new name: The Foreign Element. The new Community column will remain true to the original ethos behind Zeit Gist, offering quality, topical material — whether news, views or analysis — by, for and about Japan’s foreign community. In the tradition of Light Gist, the last Foreign Element of the month will focus on the lighter side of life in Japan. Also from next week, the Have Your Say letters column will become The Community Chest and What’s Up, the free listings, will be reborn as Community Service.