Japan has been overtaken by China as the world's No. 2 economy. Its flagship company, Toyota Motor Corp., recalled more than 10 million vehicles in an embarrassing safety crisis. Its fourth prime minister resigned in three years, and the government remains unable to jolt an economy entering its third decade of stagnation.

For once-confident Japan, 2010 may well mark a symbolic milestone in its slide from economic giant to what experts see as its likely destiny: a second-tier power with some standout companies but limited global influence.

As Japanese drink up at yearend parties known as "bonenkai," or "forget-the-year gatherings," this is one many will be happy to forget.