National

Japan's peaceful Heisei Era leaves legacy of change, growth and tragedy

by Linda Sieg

Reuters

Emperor Akihito’s abdication Tuesday will end the three-decade Heisei Era that began on Jan. 8, 1989, a day after he inherited the throne upon the death of his father, Emperor Showa.

During his rein, Japan struggled with economic stagnation and was hit by several natural disasters, and grappled with how to maintain its pacifism amidst a shifting regional security landscape. In spite of difficult times, it was also a period where Japan’s soft power attracted global recognition, largely through its pop culture.

Below are key events that marked Emperor Akihito’s era:

Bubble crash, lost decades

Japan’s bubble economy of soaring asset prices was in its final stages when Emperor Akihito ascended the throne. The Nikkei share average hit a record high of 38,957.44 on Dec. 29, 1989, but began to slide in 1990. Land prices followed.

The implosion triggered financial failures, including the November 1997 collapse of “Big Four” brokerage Yamaichi Securities. It also ushered in what came to be known as “the lost decade,” a period of economic stagnation that was actually much longer.

Japan, which had been the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, was overtaken by China in 2010.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012 promising to revive the economy with a three-pronged recipe called Abenomics that included a hyper-easy monetary policy, ushering in expansion but leaving doubts about the sustainability of growth.

Demographic drain

Demographers had forecast Japan’s population decline even before the Imperial succession. That decline became a reality when the population peaked at about 128 million in 2010.

The population was 126.4 million in October and the decline would have been bigger without an increase in foreign residents.

Data released in April showed the percentage of those aged 65 and over was 28.1 percent, with the working age population declining to just under 60 percent.

A historic labor shortage pushed Japan to enact a new visa system that took effect this month, allowing in more blue-collar workers despite concerns among conservatives about a threat to social stability.

Disasters

Japan suffered several disasters — natural and man-made — during the Heisei Era.

A magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck western Honshu on Jan. 15, 1995, devastating Kobe and surrounding areas killing more than 6,400 people.

Just over two months later, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, killing 13 people, injuring at least 5,800 and shattering Japan’s myth of public safety.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off northeast Japan on March 11, 2011, spawning tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and triggered a triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Many people are still in temporary housing.

Elastic pacifism

In 1991, constrained by the pacifist postwar Constitution, Japan contributed cash but no troops for the first Gulf War. Stung by critics who dubbed the move “checkbook diplomacy,” leaders stretched the limits of the Constitution, dispatching troops to Iraq on a reconstruction mission in 2004 and enacting legislation in 2015 that would allow its military to fight abroad for the first time since 1945.

Japan has increased military outlays under Abe to counter China’s military buildup and now spends about the same as Britain does on defense.

Abe wants to revise the Constitution to clarify the Self-Defense Forces’ ambiguous legal status, but the public remains divided.

Revolving-door leaders

Japan was bedevilled for much of the era by a string of “revolving door” prime ministers, including Noboru Takeshita, who quit in June 1989 over a shares-for-favors scandal.

Seventeen prime ministers served — including Abe twice — with only maverick Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) and Abe in his current term showing staying power.

The long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party was briefly ousted in 1993 but returned in an alliance with the Socialists the next year.

In 2009, the LDP was toppled again by the Democratic Party of Japan, whose rocky rule under three prime ministers ended when Abe led the LDP back to power in 2012.

Culture

In the 1990s, Japanese pop culture — in the form of anime and manga — swept the wider world, with “Dragon Ball Z” and “Pokemon” leading the way. By the end of Heisei, many manga had been translated into multiple foreign languages.

Among the giants was director Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, whose anime “Spirited Away” won a 2003 Academy Award. Foreign fans also joined their Japanese counterparts in cosplay, short for “costume play,” dressing up as their favorite anime characters.

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