If 2008 cannot be called an “annus horribilis,” it is only because 2009 might hold even more shocks and surprises. Even outside the worsening economy, everything in Japan seemed a bit subprime in 2008. A midyear survey found that more than 70 percent of Japanese — the highest percentage ever — were worried about their everyday lives and the future. It is not hard to understand why.

One worry stems from lingering attitudes and habits. Air Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff General Toshio Tamogami was dismissed from his post and retired over an essay that denied Japan’s military aggression in the 1930s and ’40s and showed revisionist nationalist sentiments. The resignation of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in September might have signaled a change, but Prime Minister Taro Aso had a way of making gaffes that were not funny. His transport minister, Nariaki Nakayama, resigned after several Aso-style gaffes, including one in which he said Japan is “ethnically homogenous.”

Whatever those in power were doing all year, they were not effectively protecting food safety. 2008 could be called “the year of tainted food.” Packaged “gyoza” dumplings imported from China contained pesticide that poisoned consumers. Even more shocking was the scandalous resale of contaminated rice to makers of rice flour, cakes and school lunches. Other scandals — falsely labeled imported eel, mislabeled beef and the sale of expired food by Senba Kitcho, one of the most well-established food and restaurant companies — led to the shut-down of several companies. Connect these dots and an image of a dangerous neglect of protective regulations emerges.

The Japanese medical system did not inspire much confidence in 2008, either. In October, a pregnant woman died after being refused admission to eight hospitals in Tokyo. In December, a 79-year-old woman who was seriously injured in a road accident was refused admission by six hospitals in Fukushima and Ibaraki, before dying.

“The year of knifings” might also fit 2008 aptly. In January a 16-year-old boy attacked five people with kitchen knives in Shinagawa. In March, a 24-year-old man in Ibaraki killed one and seriously injured seven. In June, Akihabara became the scene of the worst knifing incident when a 25-year-old man ran down pedestrians with a rented van before stabbing and attacking many others, killing seven and seriously injuring 10. In July, a woman stabbed passengers on a train in Hiratsuka, and in November, a man killed a former health and welfare vice minister and his wife before stabbing the wife of another vice minister in a related but separate incident.

Less preventable perhaps, but just as tragic, was the killing of Japanese volunteer worker in Afghanistan and the deaths of 13 people in an earthquake in Tohoku.

With such scandals, killings and turmoil, the past year has been like a medieval tragic drama, and with just as many shocking revelations. The myth of a drug-free Japan was clearly shattered when the extent of illegal drug use in Japan became apparent with numerous arrests of university students possessing marijuana. Authorities also cracked down on marijuana possession in the sports arenas of sumo and tennis.

Beyond the gloom, though, Japan’s scientific progress, literature and pop culture have remained vital and productive. After acquitting itself respectfully at the Olympics in China, Japan went on to excel in the realm of science. Osamu Shimomura and Yoichiro Nambu, Japan-born scientists who pursued their careers in the United States, received Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics respectively, while Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa, working in Japan, both received Nobel Prizes in physics. More than just exporting animation and manga, Japan needs to ensure that this tradition of scientific excellence continues during the years to come.

Within Japan itself, culture has received a beneficial dose of internationalization. Yang Yi became the first Chinese to receive the Akutagawa Prize for literature for her novel written in Japanese, and American singer Jero took the world of enka by storm, single-handedly spurring a boom in the traditional style of Japanese song. The signs of change were everywhere and the rest of the world seemed a little bit closer than ever before.

In 2008, Japan’s social structures and traditional attitudes seemed destined for new directions, both good and bad. Income inequality worsened, layoffs increased as exports fell and social turmoil continued. Japan’s society is now composed of more elderly people than ever with nearly 10 percent of the population over the age of 75. The years to come will find related trends and developments. The year of the mouse, 2008, may well have been unusually bad, but we can hope that this means the year of the ox can only be better. The Japan Times wishes its readers the security and comfort of better things to come, along with the hope for a more upbeat year in 2009.

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