Year of ups and downs for Japan

Japan in 2013 was besieged by problems in politics, business and society even while several key events helped to rekindle a sense of confidence in Japan. The hollow rhetoric of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence on turning Japan into “a beautiful nation” and the danger of his call to bring an end to Japan’s postwar regime contrasted with the genuine pride and renewed enthusiasm in things Japanese inspired by the renewed focus on the real heart of Japanese culture.

Japan got a questionable uplift from its successful bid for the 2020 Olympics, but a much more substantive and earthy boost in morale when Japanese cuisine (washoku) was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list this fall.

The addition brought Japanese assets listed on UNESCO’s list to a total of 22 following Mount Fuji’s recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site last summer. Traditional Japanese restaurants just might be well booked through 2014!

Japanese culture continued to be exported around the world. Perhaps Japan’s most popular and world-renowned writer, Haruki Murakami, published yet another best-selling novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” with many considering him a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

Much more surprising was the announcement from famed animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s announcement that he would be retiring. His imaginative, engaging films have won fans in Japan and abroad.

The announcement that Tokyo would host the 2020 Summer Olympics also provoked a flurry of activity from the education ministry about English, in a belated push to develop Japan’s notoriously low level of English before the influx of foreign visitors and before the world turns its attention to the games.

Proposals such as starting English language study in earlier grades, sending teachers abroad to study, and requiring stricter English tests to enter university were announced throughout the year.

Despite those initiatives, Japan’s education system continued to be plagued with problems.

The education ministry announced in December that cases of bullying in fiscal 2012 were more common than ever, with more than half of all schools reporting serious bullying cases.

The ministry also announced that 2,253 public school teachers were reprimanded for corporal punishment nationwide, up six-fold from 2012.

The larger reported numbers were due in part to more accurate reporting and stricter guidelines enacted after an Osaka high school student committed suicide following repeated beatings from a teacher who was his basketball coach. That teacher’s trial resulted in his receiving a year in jail suspended for three years.

Japan’s school system clearly needs more than an upgrade in English to solve its most serious problems.

Even local school boards were subjected to bullying. When the school board in Taketomi, a small town in the island prefecture of Okinawa, refused to accept a conservative, and unbalanced, social studies textbook, the education minister ordered the town to use it, ignoring local residents’ opinion concerning their children’s education.

Meanwhile, courts throughout Japan ruled that the disparity in vote values that helped deliver the last election to Abe’s ruling coalition was either unconstitutional or “in a state of unconstitutionality,” a court phrase meaning almost unconstitutional.

Abe’s government came under perhaps the strongest protest of any government in half a century when it rushed a state secrets protection bill into law without sufficient discussion or procedures.

Thousands of protesters gathered across from the Diet Building and in Hibiya Park and other venues during the highly curtailed Diet debate over the bill. Protesters and opposition party members continued the real-world debate by pointing out how the new law will muzzle the media and make it easier to cover up mistakes by bureaucrats.

One thing that the law could be used to cover up is problems such as the incompetence and wrongdoing at Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The past year was riddled by reports of problems at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Admissions of huge leaks of radioactive water were among the worst of the problems.

Cleanup of the contaminated plant and surrounding area, it was announced, will take three years longer than estimated. The cost of cleaning up the disaster continues to mount.

The environment received another blow when the government decided on lower targets for greenhouse gases.

The revised targets effectively reversed course from Japan’s previous emission reduction goals and set back United Nations talks on the issue.

No one expected Japan to go backward in its efforts to reduce emissions, especially after the worsening pollution conditions in China were said to be having a possible impact on Japan.

Conditions for the average worker were little improved over the year. News about “black companies” that exploit workers by forcing them to do excessive overtime or labor under harsh conditions or by withholding their pay culminated in an announcement that 4,200 companies had violated labor laws.

Other surveys by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare over the past year found that one in every four workers experiences power harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace.

Despite the Abe government’s rhetoric about improving conditions for women in the workplace, little headway was made on the issue.

More women than ever were working, but mostly as nonregular employees with lower pay and fewer benefits.

The long-term problems of daycare, discrimination and dead-end positions that have long held women back in Japan found little solution.

Regardless of what wonders and adversities continue on from the events of 2013, and what new ones arrive, The Japan Times wishes its readers all the best for a safe, prosperous and joyous new year!