History has seen worse years than 2009. All the same, this Year of the Ox has been more than most of us born after World War II in the relatively privileged regions of the Earth were conditioned to cope with.

Think back to New Year’s Day. You may have forgotten what you yourself were doing, but if you were in Japan you’re sure to recall the temporary tent city set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park for newly unemployed temp workers, many of them newly homeless into the bargain, their housing having vanished with their jobs. It is one of the enduring images of the year, the picture worth the proverbial thousand words.

At this time last year, we were living through a phenomenon quantified in late January in these terms: Japan’s industrial output in December 2008 plummeted 9.6 percent, the fastest fall on record. Unemployment surged to 4.4 percent, prompting then-Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano to observe: “I am extremely worried. Probably such a sharp decline was never experienced in the past, and it is likely to continue.” He was right; 4.4 percent now seems like the good old days. The latest figure, down from 5.7 percent in August, is 5.1 percent.

Winter ’09 was a winter of numbers, all of them awful. It was terror by numerical barrage. Sony lost ¥18 billion in the third quarter of fiscal ’08; Toshiba projected a ¥280 billion loss for the full year; Panasonic, ¥300 billion; Nissan, ¥180 billion. January auto sales in Japan fell 27.9 percent, the biggest monthly drop since May 1974. And so on. Irregular employees — one-third the Japanese labor force — were hardest hit. Just ask the roughly 200,000 of them who lost jobs.

2009 dawned on a broken world — in which deepening despair, strangely enough, kindled a dizzying upsurge of hope. The alchemist who worked that bit of magic was the towering figure of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama. More than a million people flocked to the National Mall in Washington on Jan. 20 to bask in his inauguration. “Starting today,” he exhorted, “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off.”

By and large the world agreed that Obama was the man to fix things, if anyone could — but could anyone? The responsibilities fallen on his shoulders were so overwhelming as to provoke a kind of manic laughter. Cartoonists drew him staggering comically under the weight of them — war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, shattered economy, catastrophic environment, spreading terrorism, proliferating nuclear capability and ambition among the most mercurial members of our world community — eternally erratic North Korea, increasingly assertive Iran, decreasingly stable Pakistan.

Never mind that he was young and untried — this was too big an agenda for any would-be savior. Many liberals, initially his warmest supporters, are discouraged already by lingering continuities with the policies of his despised predecessor, George W. Bush. Still, if Obama has one overriding gift, it is the gift of confidence. His performance may have been uneven, but his serene confidence has never appeared to falter, nor his soaring rhetoric to flag.

Obama’s election, symbolizing a tragically adrift America striving to reinvent itself, challenged Japan, scarcely less adrift, to confront a vexing question: Couldn’t it do likewise? While Americans chanted “Yes we can!, Japanese sighed over polls showing then-Prime Minister Taro Aso mired in approval ratings below 20 percent. In 54 years Japan had managed a change of government precisely once — for nine months 17 years ago.

The seemingly undislodgable Liberal Democratic Party had been unpopular before, but rarely this unpopular. “We cannot yield government power to such an irresponsible party,” declared LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda at his party’s annual convention on Jan. 18. He meant, of course, the opposition-leading Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Hollow words, as he must have known even as he spoke.

Aso made maximum use of the two means open to him of staving off disaster — he shoveled record stimulus funding into the sputtering economy, and he delayed the looming election until almost the last possible moment. At one point the DPJ came close to blundering into his hands. But Ichiro Ozawa’s money scandal retreated from the headlines following his replacement as party president by Yukio Hatoyama — soon to be dogged by money scandals of his own — and on Aug. 31 the history-making landslide came to pass.

Stimulus funding was not Aso’s weapon alone. Its application was global, massive, unprecedented. With it, the world economy entered uncharted territory. Aso’s stimulus amounted to ¥15.4 trillion, 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Obama’s was worth $787 billion — “a program,” observed Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, “infinitely more ambitious than anything President Franklin Roosevelt proposed as a peacetime initiative in his entire tenure.”

“It worked,” boasted Group of Twenty (G20) leaders at their September summit in Pittsburgh. The summit’s main significance lay in highlighting a new fact of globalized life — the leading developing economies, China so overpowering among them as to generate talk of a future G-2 composed of it and the U.S., now share center stage with the leading developed ones, the G8’s anachronistic exclusiveness having long rankled.

“Our forceful response,” the G20 Pittsburgh statement went on, “helped stop the dangerous, sharp decline in global activity and stabilize financial markets. Industrial output is now rising in nearly all our economies. International trade is starting to recover.”

But for how long, and at what cost? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned that the world’s 30 leading economies will see their indebtedness grow to 100 percent of output in 2010. Japan’s is closer to 200 percent. Moody’s, the ratings agency, foresees total global debt reaching $49 trillion next year. “No one knows how to interpret these numbers,” wrote Washington Post economic columnist Robert Samuelson in November. The recent six-month moratorium announced by Dubai on its $59 billion debt suggests a worst-case scenario — a chain reaction of economy-crushing defaults.

Once, we could turn to nature for solace in bewildering times. No longer. Nature herself is cancerous. The environment spawned another terrifying barrage of numbers. They boil down to this: the planet could warm by 7 degrees Celsius this century. Two degrees is widely considered the boundary between us and scarcely imaginable cataclysms. Global political negotiation, with its tortuous give-and-take, seems too slow and, by its nature, too compromising, for the uncompromising physics of a climate unleashed from its moorings. The rickety deal reached last week at the Copenhagen climate summit is unlikely to defeat that logic.

The most encouraging news on the climate front, amid implacably melting glaciers and rising seas, concerns the drop in greenhouse gas emissions this year, due to the shrunken global economy. The cheers have not been rousing.

Was there anything to cheer about this grim, grim year? Pleasure itself seemed under a cloud. In Japan, one entertainer after another had his or her brush with the law — Noriko Sakai and Manabu Oshio for drugs, Tetsuya Komuro for fraud, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi for drunken nudity in a Tokyo park one mild spring pre-dawn. “What’s wrong with being naked?” he inquired of the arresting officers. That promptly became what it so plainly deserved to be — a slogan inscribed on T-shirts.

In June, Michael Jackson died. He’d been rehearsing hard for what might have been the greatest comeback in entertainment history. Instead he set off history’s most irrepressible outpouring of naked grief. Broadcast worldwide, his funeral was watched by an estimated 1 billion people. That’s one-sixth the human race.

A week earlier, another death, not much less public, had a very different impact. A young Iranian woman protesting her country’s apparently hijacked election was shot dead by security forces in Tehran. The silence of Iran’s state-controlled press was thwarted by YouTube, which turned the woman’s death throes into a potent symbol. The protests continue.

In April, an outbreak of death in Mexico was ascribed to a mutated flu virus. Two months later the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. WHO Director General Margaret Chan explained what that means: “This virus is now unstoppable.” One virologist lamely tried to soften the impact of the word “pandemic.” “You can have serious pandemics,” he said, “and you can have wimpy pandemics.” He did not say which this one was.

Japan’s new guiding philosophy, Japan’s new prime minister announced, is yuai, a term combining the kanji characters for friendship and love. Hatoyama promises to steer Japan in a new, more humane direction. In his maiden policy speech to the Diet in October he said, “There is no end to the number of people who take their own lives because they cannot find in society even a humble place to which they belong, and yet politics and government are thoroughly insensitive to this fact. My primary mission is to rectify this aberrant situation

A few harsh realities have intruded since then — murky funding harking discouragingly back to LDP days; outspoken American impatience as the government wrestles with, instead of ignoring, discontent in Okinawa over U.S. military bases. 2009 was not a yuai sort of year. Maybe 2010 will be.

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