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Year of the Dog fails to answer the tough questions

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Sodanē.

What an innocent, carefree year it must have been to spawn so bland a word of the year. It has a nice ring to it, especially when spoken with the Hokkaido lilt the women’s curling team — surprise bronze medalists — gave it during February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. So what if all it means is, “That’s right”? What’s wrong with right? Let 2018, the Year of the Dog, end as it began — on a positive note.

What else was good? Speaking of dogs and beginnings: Sony’s robot dog Aibo was a big hit at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The cameras, sensors and chips that compose its nervous system make it perhaps the smartest pet on the planet. Otherwise, Japan’s presence at the annual exhibit was deemed disappointing, a symptom of the nation’s relatively low AIQ (artificial intelligence quotient) — one sign among many of the developed world traveling in one direction, and Japan, for better or for worse, in another. More on that shortly.

More good news: No North Korean missiles rattled Japanese nerves this year, as two in quick succession did last year, overflying Hokkaido in late summer, landing in the Pacific Ocean — harmlessly, if such exercises are ever harmless. The journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in January moved its Doomsday Clock 30 seconds forward to two minutes to nuclear midnight, where, as of this writing, it remains, June’s U.S.-North Korea summit notwithstanding.

Humanity pausing on the brink of disaster wakes to nature rushing in to fill the vacuum. Nature’s fury this year felt almost like malice aforethought. It was one thing after another: an earthquake in Osaka in June (five dead, 400 injured); floods across 15 prefectures in July (225 dead); killer heat waves almost nationwide all summer (133 dead, 55,000 treated for heat prostration). Is that all? By no means. The strongest typhoon in 25 years struck Osaka in September (11 dead, 600 injured), followed two days later by the strongest earthquake to hit Hokkaido since 1996 (31 dead or missing, 400 injured).

There’s no holding nature to account for her depredations. She does what she does, leaving us to mop up as best we can. Human rights are not her concern. They are ours, however. Unease swirled throughout the year that Japan is losing its way in that regard. It found expression in words rarely used by mainstream media to describe a democratically elected government that can, in theory, be democratically deposed. The left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, in a July editorial, accused the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of conduct worthy of Nazism. The bimonthly conservative magazine Sapio, around the same time, preferred the term “neo-fascism.” In September, the Asahi Shimbun asked in an editorial, “Is the Diet committing suicide?”

Sapio and the Asahi Shimbun were focused primarily on bureaucratic tampering with official documents pertaining to allegations of government favoritism to educational enterprises Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, both run by friends of the prime minister. Cronyism may be thought bad enough, but document tampering, said the Asahi Shimbun, invoking the “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” raises government abuse of power to new levels, flouting “the most elementary rules and ethics on which democracy depends.”

The Diet may not be committing suicide but the opposition for now is overwhelmed by an invincible government majority. Laws get rammed through by force of numbers, opposition brushed aside. It’s been a highly legislative year, new law following new law: a gender equality law in April, a work reform law in June, a pro-casino law and an anti-smoking law in July, a labor reform law in December. All are controversial, all have been criticized as fundamentally flawed or, if well-intentioned, inadequate. All passed, soaring above the clamor as though harmony reigned untroubled.

It was less the perceived shortcomings of the laws that drew media ire than the apparent reduction of Diet debate to perfunctory impotence. The foreign labor law in particular, opening Japan wider than ever before to workers from abroad, drew a rare unanimity among the three major dailies. The Asahi Shimbun accused the government of “dropping all pretenses of debate with the opposition.” The Mainichi Shimbun said, “It is clear to everyone that the foreign labor bill designed to accept more foreign workers is a slipshod job far from perfection, but the incredibly arrogant government and the ruling camp have blocked their ears to criticism and even constructive proposals on the legislation.” Even the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, usually a staunch government supporter, expressed disappointment that, “despite a wide range of disputed points, the deliberations in the Lower House lasted only a little over 17 hours.”

The school year opened in spring with a new subject on the elementary school curriculum: moral education. The aim, the education ministry explained, is “to develop a Japanese citizen who will never lose the consistent spirit of respect for his fellow man.” That is nice and good. It is irreproachably moral. Japan certainly needs such citizens. It would be excellent if more of them were in positions of power and influence. The corrosive effect on morals of power and influence has been much in evidence this year. Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen hardly exhaust the subject. Moral education arrives against a background of moral breakdown infecting government and business alike. Deception, falsification and cover-up form the recurring pattern. Some great names in Japanese industry — Nissan Motor Co., Subaru Corp., Toray Industries Inc., Kobe Steel Ltd., Mitsubishi Materials Corp., KYB Corp. — lead the march into an era defined by words such as “post-truth,” “post-trust,” “fake.” May moral education stem the tide.

Meanwhile, a kind of moral evolution ripples through the developed world, leaving Japan, almost alone, it seems, almost untouched. New ideas simmer. Old values retreat. Things once considered evil are now good, or at least tolerable and, increasingly, tolerated: same-sex marriage, dignity for sexual minorities, gender equality, euthanasia, marijuana.

The year’s legislative flurry addressed only one of these themes: gender equality. Overshadowing this step forward was the revelation four months later in August, that Tokyo Medical University had for years been secretly manipulating entrance exam scores to the detriment of female applicants. There were media reports of “shock waves.” There are always media reports of “shock waves.” But shock waves no longer shock or, if they do, we soon get over it. “Shock waves” and “business as usual” have grown synonymous.

So, da ne? (That’s right, isn’t it?)

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.