In April, much of the world ground to a halt.

No one not an expert in such matters could have foreseen it, maybe not even Paul the psychic octopus. Nothing more remote from our overflowing cup of concerns and anxieties could have been imagined — a volcano with an unpronounceable name (Eyjafjallajokull) in Iceland. But the vast ash cloud it spewed over northern Europe caused the most chaotic flight disruptions since Sept. 11, 2001.

Among the millions of stranded travelers was U.S. President Barack Obama, unable to attend the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Kaczynski, together with dozens of his country’s political, military and religious leaders, had perished days earlier in an episode so bizarre it seems in retrospect a worthy herald of the volcano. Their plane crashed in thick fog en route to the Katyn Forest in western Russia, where in 1940 Polish military officers were massacred by Joseph Stalin’s secret police.

Kaczynski’s trip was to have signified a rapprochement between two hostile neighbors, a theme not irrelevant to Japan. But rapprochement proved abortive this Year of the Tiger, and the world as the year ends is poised on the brink of something, it scarcely knows what. Paul the psychic octopus died in October without telling us.

Paul made his name as an oracle during the summer’s World Cup football tournament in South Africa. He was uncanny, infallible — if he fed out of a container bearing a certain country’s colors, that country was sure to win.

Japan shone in South Africa, the “Blue Samurai” defying the odds to qualify for the final 16 before finally losing in a heart-stopping penalty shootout to Paraguay. It was Japan’s finest hour.

Off the field, the news wasn’t so good. It is hard to recall, now that it’s dead, the hope that swelled in August 2009 when voters at last said no to a one-party state and elected the opposition. This was Japan’s “Obama moment,” full of fresh faces and the promise of new ideas. In January, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promised “a new start for Japan.” What happened?

Nothing. Hatoyama was history by May, victim of plunging support ratings as his bold challenge to the United States over military bases in Okinawa wilted under pressure from Washington. The Futenma air base would be moved to . . . well, to White Beach, maybe, or . . . how about Tokunoshima? No? Well, okay, Nago. Rarely had a world-class nation, pre-WikiLeaks, looked so foolish in public. Hatoyama resigned and was succeeded by Naoto Kan, whose initial support rating was a promising 65 percent. It’s around 20 percent now, his stewardship at year’s end hanging by a thread.

Hatoyama and Kan were not the only leaders to be eaten alive by their constituents. Obama himself, hope personified in 2008, was soon the devil incarnate, caught in a surge of “tea party” activism which branded government as the cause, not a potential solution, to the predicaments assailing us. And so Obama and his Democrats took their “shellacking” in midterm elections in November, just as Kan and his DPJ took theirs in July elections which cost the party its majority in the Upper House.

If the tea partiers are right, then so are we to emasculate our governments as we’re doing. If they’re wrong, we’re like children playing with matches, because the issues confronting us — among others climate warp, economic decline and the rising power of evil, defined as state and non-state “actors” who think us evil and consider it good to destroy us by any and all means — demand a response stronger or different than measures taken to date.

A numbing malevolence hung over the year. It was a mere 12 days old when an earthquake buckled Haiti, killing tens of thousands instantly and a quarter of a million ultimately, leaving another million — one-ninth of the population — homeless. A month later it was Chile’s turn; then, in April, Tibet’s. The Chilean quake was so massive it shortened the length of the planetary day by a microsecond. It sent tsunami waves as far away as Miyagi Prefecture.

Flooding in Pakistan in July and August killed 2,000, uprooted 20 million, and left a fifth of the country under water. The sheer scale of it all is unimaginable in relatively sheltered Japan, where nature’s warnings are clear but almost friendly in comparison. A summer heat wave here sent 17,000 people to hospital with heatstroke. Globally, NASA this month called January-November 2010 the warmest period in 131 years of record- keeping.

Does natural upheaval provoke human folly? Or is it vice versa? Or both, in a vicious circle? On New Year’s Day a suicide bombing in northwest Pakistan killed 88 people watching a volleyball match — somebody giving the “war on terror” yet another finger. Explosions echoed worldwide in a chain reaction that echoes still, from Baghdad to Sweden. If one word is to sum up the year, let it be “explosion.” Grenade blasts at two Bangkok bank branches in February opened a months-long standoff in the Thai capital between the government and “Red Shirt” protesters claiming to represent the otherwise unrepresented poor. In March, the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo widely believed to be North Korean; 46 sailors died. Days later, twin rush-hour suicide bombings killed 39 on packed Moscow subway trains.

In April, a BP undersea oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana, killing 11 workers and prompting assurances from company officials that, as the AFP news agency reported at the time, “No oil was leaking from the collapsed structure, easing fears of an environmental disaster.” Famous last words. Three months and 652 million liters of leaked oil later, one of the world’s worst environmental disasters ever was, finally, contained.

Noteworthy also are the explosions that didn’t quite happen — in New York’s Times Square in April; somewhere between Yemen and the U.S. in October (two explosive-laden packages were intercepted at airports in Britain and Dubai); and at an Oregon Christmas tree lighting ceremony three weeks ago. Though aborted, they heightened the mood whose most vivid symbols are the full body scans and police-style patdowns at U.S. airports, soon apparently to spread to Japan.

The global economy is a shambles. Everywhere there is talk of a “lost decade,” Japan’s being the prototype to avoid if possible — but is it? Mass demonstrations against government austerity turned riotous in Greece in April, France in October, Britain in November and December. The Japanese did not riot — a symptom more likely of exhaustion than of patience.

Japan is exhausted. Its population is aging and shrinking, its intellectual heft (two chemistry Nobels notwithstanding) sagging, its economy a shadow of its once formidable self, its social cohesion dissolving. Muen shakai — literally a “society of no relationships” — is a new phrase coined to describe what Japan has become. Its most vivid icon is a household in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, home to the mummified remains of a man who’d been presumed alive at age 111; home also to his 81-year-old daughter and 53-year-old granddaughter, both charged in August with pension fraud.

A spate of reports followed of “vanishing centenarians” — hundreds of them across the country. Were they alive or dead? If alive, where? Neither their families nor their ward offices seemed to know. What is the core issue? Slack record keeping? Indifferent families? Or families reduced by poverty to concealing deaths so as not to be deprived of the deceased’s pensions? The latter, unthinkable till only recently, is now all too plausible. As of September, 1.41 million households were on welfare — an all-time high.

Ex-Prime Minister Hatoyama came to office intent on easing Japan’s American dependency and drawing closer to Asia. That course has been defeated by events. China’s increasingly truculent awakening and what looks like North Korea’s increasingly frenzied death throes have given the neighborhood a hazardous — in fact explosive — character. Japan yielded to China’s fury in September, releasing a fishing boat captain arrested in a clash near the disputed Japanese-held Senkaku Islands, then sputtered in vain when Russia’s president visited the disputed Russian-held Northern Territories off eastern Hokkaido. December’s “Keen Sword,” the largest-ever Japan-U.S. joint military drills, showed Japan securely back in the American embrace following North Korea’s fatal November shelling of a South Korean island near their disputed border.

Do miracles happen? Events dubbed miracles do, the fervor with which they are celebrated a measure of our hunger for them. The miracle of the year is Chile’s — the October “resurrection,” as it seemed, of 33 miners trapped for 69 days in a collapsed mine.

They surfaced one by one in a capsule called Phoenix as the world watched spellbound. Spells are fleeting things, however, and the year closes with another pregnant image claiming world attention. It is an empty chair in Oslo, Norway, reserved for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo as he languishes in a Chinese prison — hero to the world, criminal at home. It is not an attractive image, or a hopeful one, but the nation it stands for is rising as fast as the bastions of more humane values are falling.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010). His website is www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com.

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