This year was a roller coaster of ups and downs — mostly downs. (And it’s not over, because the official disintegration of SMAP is yet to happen.) A lot of people made mistakes and bad decisions, and in the case of the embarrassing nonmove of the Tsukiji fish market, old sins were literally dug out of the ground.
It was, however, a year that saw progress in addressing some crucial problems plaguing Japanese society, like bullying in schools, overwork and overtime in the corporate world, the lack of child care facilities and how women are left with the raw end of the deal when it comes to infidelity. (I’m looking at you, Enon Kawatani and Becky.)
Here are some of the good, bad and the ugly of what various people said or shouted out loud in 2016.
Child care in Japan, or lack thereof
I couldn’t get my child into day care. Die, Japan!
How dare you spend millions and billions of yen on the Olympics and hire fancy designers for a stupid emblem. It’s a sheer waste. Just make more day care facilities. If you’re not going to do that, then pay mothers a monthly ¥200,000 stipend, because there’s no way we can pay for child care without working.
This anonymous online post went viral in February and eventually made its presence felt in the Diet. As of July 2016, 8,466 preschoolers — and by implication their parents (mostly mothers) — in Tokyo’s 23 wards were awaiting day care services. The highest number of taikijidō (waiting children), by the way, is in Setagaya Ward, with 1,198. No day care means no going back to work for moms, as Japanese fathers are notoriously unreliable when it comes to sharing the burden of child care and housework. At the other end of the spectrum, day care employees are paid ridiculously little, the facilities are perpetually understaffed and the whole day-care package is chronically underfunded.
This vicious cycle has been addressed in the Diet, but real and immediate solutions continue to elude mothers struggling to raise children and secure enough income. So much for the Abe administration’s promise to construct a “society where women can shine.”
On trying not to die from overwork
We should be seeing a much bigger total of cases where people died from overwork, but often such cases are hidden, or have been quashed in one way or another before the victims’ families had a chance to come forward.
It’s typical of companies where work-related deaths and suicides have happened to say things like “It happens elsewhere, too” and “Why blame only us?” and “The dead should be blamed, too — they had their own problems.”
These companies justify themselves with such statements and then pretend to adhere to compliance rules. This sort of mind-set is seen not just in the advertising industry but all over the service sector, including in restaurants, retail and real estate. The common logic among these companies is: “If you’re not strong enough to run with our pack, then it’s your own fault.” — Haruki Konno of prominent labor and employment NGO Posse, quoted about the government’s first white papers on death from overwork
This was the year that Matsuri Takahashi’s name became part of the national conversation. Posthumously, she showed Japan and its companies that it wasn’t OK to work until death or deep depression, whichever came first. Takahashi took her own life on Christmas Day 2015, after complaining in numerous posts on social media about having to work excessive overtime and how it was taking a toll on her physical and mental health.
In February, Takahashi’s parents sued their daughter’s employer, ad giant Dentsu Inc., for bringing about her death. Takahashi was clocking over 100 hours of overtime a month, and often functioned on a mere two hours of sleep, according to her Twitter account. At 24 years old she had been a bright, vivacious young woman, but working for a company that could be described as pitch-black had broken her spirit. “I can’t stand work, I can’t bear life” was one of the last text messages she sent to her mother.
In October, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare published the White Papers on Prevention of Death From Overwork — the first of their kind in Japanese history. Heated arguments and debates surrounding Japanese labor practices began in earnest, and the offices of labor NGOs and human rights lawyers were suddenly inundated with overworked, under-cared-for people wanting to tell their stories.
Yuriko, who art thou?
Some of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s favorite English words and blended phrases, many referring to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics:
• To-min fāsuto (Tokyoites first)
• Wise spending — as in “Hitsuyōna regashii o waizu supendingu de” (Let’s wisely spend on an essential legacy)
• Hādo to sofuto no regashii (The hard and soft legacy)
• Reduce, reuse, recycle — or “3R”.
• Beyond 2020
• 1964 again dewa naku (Not just repeating 1964)
At home, 2016 marked the year we saw the capital’s first female governor settle into the plush armchair in the top-floor office of the Tokyo government building after her election in July.
Koike lost no time in throwing a megaton monkey wrench into the long-scheduled move of the world’s biggest fish market from Tsukiji to Toyosu, exposing a large amount of contaminated soil on the new site and a large hole under the buildings. The Toyosu relocation has been shelved, perhaps indefinitely.
Koike’s other big-ticket item is the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. She wants to swing that on the cheap, but she’s struggling under the weight of a budget that has inflated to six times its original size, and met her nemesis in the racist, misogynist No. 1 harasser Yoshiro Mori, head honcho of the Olympic organizing committee.
Koike is famed for peppering her speeches with English words, and it’s thanks to her that Tokyoites are now familiar with concepts like “sustainable” and “diversity.” On the other hand, it’s hard to work out what she’s saying a lot of the time.
When celebs and drugs collide
I haven’t laid eyes on any drugs since I was arrested the last time. I swear I haven’t done any drugs. — singer Aska
Aska, half of the duo Chage and Aska, was arrested for the second time on drug charges on Nov. 28. On Monday, police said he would not be indicted this time due to a lack of material evidence.
I would like to retire from the entertainment industry (because) certain hidden elements of my sexuality were likely to be exposed. — actor Hiroki Narimiya
Narimiya had been rumored to be gay, but apparently this statement was a smoke screen to distract from the much more serious accusation that he had been caught snorting cocaine by gossip tabloid Friday. All of Narimiya’s endorsements and TV appearances have been canceled. He took a flight out of Japan immediately after announcing his retirement to the press.
To be perfectly honest, I experienced marijuana overseas, when I was 18. Personally, I think it’s safer, healthier and brings more happiness than alcohol, tobacco or chocolate. And I do believe it’s a plant with great anti-aging effects.” — from the blog of actress Ikue Masudo
Masudo was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana in Okinawa, just months after she unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Lower House of the Diet. She had been campaigning to legalize medical marijuana.
Fading and rising stars
The year 2016 was when Masaharu Fukuyama went out and Gen Hoshino took his place. — entertainment writer Fuyu Kimata
Hoshino’s success is in his accessibility. He has written and spoken on the radio about his dark teenage past when he was ultra-shy, girls avoided him and he had stomach trouble every time he got tense. He wasn’t always the multitalented, fun guy he is now. Which makes him seem that much closer to us all. Masaharu Fukuyama, on the other hand, was too perfect and unapproachable. — women’s magazine Josei Seven
Indeed, since his marriage in 2015, Fukuyama — the superstar Renaissance man of Japan’s entertainment industry — has been stuck in a rut of nonstarters, whether it be movie roles, endorsements or his new album. Musician/actor Hoshino, on the other hand, struck gold this year with a best-seller collection of essays and a starring role in the enormously popular TBS drama “Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu” (“It’s Embarrassing to Run Away but It’s also Useful)” for which he also penned the theme song.
And, of course, sports went to Rio
I think that in the end, it was my mother who helped me out — Kaori Icho, who won gold in the women’s wrestling (58 kg), her fourth consecutive Olympic gold in that class
My dad will be really angry with me. — Saori Yoshida, after finishing with the silver medal, having missed out on her fourth consecutive Olympic gold in the women’s wrestling (53 kg).
I got the best-colored medal with my best performance. I’m the happiest guy ever. — Kohei Uchimura, after winning the men’s all-around gymnastics gold medal, which he also bagged at London 2012
My parents were never the type to say things like “Don’t push yourself too hard” and “It’s dangerous to exercise” just because I have a disability. I was surrounded by people who supported my will to keep doing what I do. In that sense, I am so privileged. — tennis player Yui Kamiji
Born with a spinal disability, Kamiji started playing tennis when she was 11 years old. She appeared at the 2012 London Paralympics as a high school senior, and was defeated in the semifinals. At the Rio 2016 Paralympics in September, she won bronze in the women’s singles.
We each have a disability, and we each have to conquer that disability to be able to stand on this stage. I think this is a place where everyone can feel the incredible possibilities of the human race.— T44 long jumper Maya Nakanishi
Nakanishi was a ranked amateur tennis player until 2006, when an accident deprived her of her right leg. She started running with a prosthetic leg in 2007. In 2008 she made the national team for the Beijing Paralympics as a long jumper. In Rio she finished fourth in the T44 event.
Two Japan-born rikishi win basho
I owe so much of the victory to my wife. — Kotoshogiku
In January, Kotoshogiku became the first Japan-born sumo wrestler to win a major basho in 10 years. The cash prize was ¥10 million, and when asked what he would do with it, Kotoshogiku replied that some of it would go to his apprentices and the rest would stay in his savings account.
Despite being the second highest-ranked ozeki, Kotoshogiku is famed for his frugal lifestyle — his “love nest” in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, is a modest ¥70,000-a-month rental condo and he drives a secondhand car, according to an interview with Flash magazine.
“I want to get my basic energy levels up, and then I want to proceed in accordance with what I think would be right for me,” he said when asked if he was looking ahead at the prospect of becoming an all-powerful yokozuna. Sumo fans up and down the archipelago cheered him on for the next four basho, but Kotoshogiku could not repeat his glorious January performance. The yokozuna title continues to elude him.
I thought of so many things. In the past, a lot of things hadn’t gone according to plan, and that made me feel bad.
But today, I felt a little redeemed. Today, I’m weeping tears of joy. — Goeido
In September, fellow sumo wrestler Goeido won the September basho with a perfect 15 wins, becoming the second Japan-born sumo wrestler to win a tournament this year, and the first Osaka-born wrestler to do so in 86 years. Goeido attributed much of his success to his stable master, Sakaigawa. Apparently, Sakaigawa exhorted his disciples to live by the nine rules of the stable, and Goeido was most earnest in following them.
‘Moshi Tora’ and ‘Trump shock’
We made a man-to-man promise. Mr. Trump is a man who could be trusted.
I have confidence that the U.S.-Japan relationship will continue to be a constructive one. — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after meeting U.S. President-elect Donald Trump
PM Abe was the first and only leader to hot-foot it to the U.S. immediately after the presidential election in November. He and Donald Trump gifted each other golf clubs and shirts and talked for just under 90 minutes inside the infamous Trump Tower.
October was the also the month when Japan was abuzz with the phrase “moshi Tora,” short for “What if Trump wins?” Economists and political pundits predicted everything from the collapse of Wall Street to a worldwide apocalypse — now.
And then the election rolled around and “moshi Tora” was replaced with “Trump shock,” but contrary to what many analysts had predicted, the world did not go up in flames. Stocks soared, as did the dollar, and the Japanese economy got a significant boost.
On the other hand, in the same month that Abe came out of the Trump Tower wreathed in smiles,
Trump trashed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, for which the PM had a particular affection. Still, Abe seems convinced that Trump is good for Japan. So is his right-hand man, Hiroshige Seko, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, who had this to say in Shukan Bunshun:
The prime minister always says what’s on his mind, he’s always very frank. In New York, he had Mr. Trump confirm the value and importance of Japan-U.S. relations, and the prime minister will continue to work on strengthening those ties.
Make no mistake, Mr. Abe will become good friends with Mr. Trump.
All translations are the writer’s own. Your comments and story ideas: email@example.com.