Making sense of the strange changes of 2008

War, economic meltdown, the leader of a superpower under malicious footwear assault: It's been a rather unusual year . . .


Every year, the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation selects a “kanji of the year.” This year’s is “hen,” meaning “change” or, equally, “strange, peculiar.”

It will be a long time before the world stops reeling from the strange changes of 2008.

They are in large part the culmination of the George W. Bush presidency in the United States and, in Japan, of the flailing administrations of three consecutive unelected prime ministers whose hapless failure to connect with the public is reflected in the latest support ratings of the current incumbent, Taro Aso. They hover around 20 percent. Coincidentally or not, as the Asahi Shimbun noted earlier this month, that is the same as the percentage of young people who see the economy collapsing around them and tell pollsters they expect to end up homeless.

In June, the giant Japanese research lab Kibo was attached to the International Space Station. “We have a new hope on the International Space Station,” said astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. The feeble pun (“kibo” means “hope”) failed to resonate. Five days after Hoshide spoke, hopelessness personified spoke louder.

Tomohiro Kato was a 25-year-old auto-parts factory temp worker, facing imminent layoff like many others. In Tokyo’s Akihabara he allegedly ran amok with a vehicle and a knife. Seven lay dead when the carnage was over.

But it wasn’t really over, and probably isn’t yet. Two months later, a 79-year-old woman stabbed and seriously wounded two young women in Tokyo’s Shibuya. “I thought if I brought on a similar incident to the one in Akihabara,” she said, “police would take care of me.” They will. This month she received a four-year prison sentence.

One needed no gift of prophecy as 2008 dawned to foresee a difficult, eventful year. The U.S. “subprime crisis” was strangling the global economy. Oil prices soared, food prices surged, jobs were lost, hunger spread. By April, food riots were erupting in poorer countries worldwide; one government, Haiti’s, was brought down by them. World Bank President Robert Zoellick spoke of “seven lost years” in the fight against global poverty. Biofuels, too hastily embraced by harassed Western leaders as a quick, politically attractive environment fix, took much of the blame.

“We’ve been putting our food into the gas tank,” said Jeffrey Sachs, head of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “This corn-to-ethanol subsidy which our (American) government is doing really makes little sense.”

Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, bluntly called it “a crime against humanity.”

“The world wants America back,” wrote Moises Naim, editor in chief of the journal Foreign Policy, in The Washington Post in January. Maybe it does; maybe the chaos we’re living through stems from a leadership vacuum. Maybe that’s why the American election campaign was the global event it was — monitored in many countries, Japan included, with more interest (more hope, as Hoshide might say) than anything happening at home. The campaign was long, expensive, often trying, not always edifying, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and what the world saw was a severely traumatized superpower beginning — hopefully — to renew itself.

With Barack Obama, former first-term senator from Illinois and now president-elect, it is not so much what he says as how he says it; not so much what he might do as who he is — young, biracial, multicultural, optimistic, inspiring. His election raised an inevitable question here: Where is Japan’s Obama? Nowhere in sight as of this writing. Perhaps waiting in the wings.

The year’s only other event of global importance not directly involving aggression, terrorism, natural disaster or economic meltdown was the Beijing Olympics. You have to discount much that surrounded it to join the Chinese government in pronouncing it an unqualified success. Ill omens emerged as early as March, in the form of what the Associated Press called “the largest and most violent protests . . . in nearly two decades” against Chinese rule in Tibet. The harshness of the ensuing crackdown won China few friends and much cynicism regarding promises made during the Olympic venue selection process to strive toward a more open society.

China’s next great test, on May 13, was a massive earthquake in its far west. The damage was devastating — tens of thousands killed, millions left homeless. Here, for a time — until the recoil following embarrassing revelations of the death and injury of thousands of children in shoddily built school buildings — openness did prevail. A three-day period of national mourning was declared, the first ever not marking the death of a national leader.

The vigor with which the government mobilized relief measures shone in contrast to the madness unfolding simultaneously in Myanmar. The havoc wreaked there days earlier by Cyclone Nargis was on a similar scale, but foreign aid-laden ships waited in vain for permission from the junta to dock. The people of Myanmar, their military dictators snapped, could get along quite well without Western chocolate bars.

Food loomed large in 2008 even for those who had it. In early February, some 500 people in 36 prefectures complained of nausea and dizziness after eating frozen gyoza dumplings imported from China. When a pesticide banned in Japan was found to be the cause, wrangling over which country it originated in threatened to jolt improving but delicate bilateral relations.

Then came the massive scandal surrounding Chinese milk laced with melamine. It surfaced in September — around the time Japan’s Mikasa Foods was caught selling contaminated rice for human consumption — but apparently began in June, when disclosure would have dampened pre-Olympic celebrations. Infants were the prime victims of this particular instance of corner-cutting in the headlong rush to progress and prosperity — six dead and hundreds of thousands hospitalized with kidney stones.

Fittingly, a year rife with problems spawned conference after conference. Their insubstantial outcomes fed a growing fear that the rush of events is outstripping the current power structure’s capacity to cope.

The most widely attended G8 summit ever held met in July at Lake Toya, Hokkaido. Leaders agreed to jointly fight global warming but failed to set quantitative goals. Later the same month, World Trade Organization talks collapsed in Geneva. “Absolutely heartbreaking,” said one delegate. The postmortems at the 189-nation U.N. climate talks in Poland in December seemed drawn from the same playbook. “We are so sad and disappointed,” said Colombia’s environment minister.

Seven years into a “war on terror,” terrorism gives the awful impression of not losing. November’s mass murder in Mumbai, India (172 dead), coming two months after the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan (52 dead), looked positively triumphant.

A week later, a U.S. congressional commission declared it likely that terrorists would deploy weapons of mass destruction against a major city “somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.” And two weeks after that, the most astonishing thing about President Bush’s visit to Baghdad — to announce that the war is “decisively on its way to being won” — was not the shoes thrown at him by an enraged Iraqi journalist but Bush’s subsequent response: “I don’t know what his beef is . . . ” You’d think he would have some idea.

All year long, the global economy had been teetering. Suddenly it fell. Sept. 15 was declared Wall Street’s worst day in seven years. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 500 points. “About $700 billion evaporated,” reported the Associated Press.

Japan is now in recession. The government has forecast zero growth for 2009. Honda Motor Co. President Takeo Fukui spoke for many when he said earlier this month, “Every day the hardships we face are getting worse and worse. And there are no signs of recovery.”