The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation’s annual kanji of the year for 2009 is, appropriately, ” ” (shin), meaning “new.” This kanji, chosen by national ballot and announced in December at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu temple, reflects the win of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which ended a half-century of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. But the kanji also reflects a tumultuous year of events and trends, most of them new, though not all good.

The DPJ’s overwhelming election victory was the very definition of new. As with the election of President Barack Obama in the United States, voters rejected the old politics and chose change. Unfortunately, new changes are easier to promise than make happen. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been besieged by allegations of financial abuse and his party has had to backtrack on some campaign pledges. As in the U.S. where old politics blocked the new, the Japanese enthusiasm over a new ruling party has morphed into more than a little disappointment. Making politics new is hard to do.

The economy, unlike politicians, cannot just be voted in. The year’s sluggish economy resulted in record unemployment and bankruptcies. Graduating students had the worst year for job-hunting in decades. The former government’s ¥12,000 cash handout and the yen’s rise to ¥84 to the dollar seemed little compensation, both bringing mixed effects to the economy. The new trend of homemade bento box lunches and self-made tea in thermoses may save a few yen here and there. However, larger projects, like restructuring the finances of ailing Japan Airlines, will require much more.

The floundering economy produced high levels of anxiety. A multinational poll by the advertising firm JWT (J. Walter Thompson) found that the percentage of Japanese who feel “anxious” is among the highest in the world. With economic worries at the top of most people’s list of problems, Japanese rates for depression and suicide rose to their highest level ever. While suicide is not a new problem in Japan, the figures from the early part of the year, with nearly 100 suicides per day in January alone and more calls to suicide hotlines than ever before, are on track to exceed 2003’s tragic record high.

Another sad new trend for the year was drug abuse. Two high-profile cases, actress/singer Noriko Sakai for amphetamine abuse and actor Manabu Oshio in connection with the death of a woman from an overdose of MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy, highlighted the new incursion of drugs into Japan. Arrests for marijuana use among college students and sumo wrestlers also hit the headlines, highlighting the extent of what will surely be an ongoing problem in Japan. The reaction to the death of Michael Jackson was received with outpourings of sorrow in Japan, though without sufficient awareness of Jackson’s alleged long-term addiction to sedatives.

While these cases featured arrests, apologies and plenty of media hoopla, the police were less successful in tracking down Tatsuya Ichihashi, who eluded police for over two years before being apprehended in November. Ichihashi confessed in late December, while in custody, to killing Lindsay Hawker, an English-language teacher, in 2007. If he faces the newly installed lay judge system, which began in 2009, he is likely to contend with a conviction rate of almost 100 percent in the first year of the lay judge system.

Not all the news for the year was gloomy, just most of it. The film “Departures (Okuribito)” by director Yojiro Takita, a film about death and burial, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, after garnering awards at film festivals throughout the year. More lively was news from the world of sports, where Japanese slugger Ichiro Suzuki got 200 hits for the ninth year in a row, breaking a century-old record of American baseball history.

Consumers tried to take their mind off bad news by figuring out the eco-point system for purchases of new electronic goods. Prices for many consumer goods dropped. The price of jeans, for example, dropped to new lows under ¥1,000. High-end and luxury-item stores saw little business, and many closed their doors. Instead of shopping, many young people spent their money on another new trend, konkatsu, or marriage hunting. The term took hold in Japan as young people searched for a spouse through dating sites, marriage services and special clubs. Perhaps the only thing to do in such difficult times is to search for someone to share the burden.

All of these new trends took place under the threat of a swine flu epidemic. Some Japanese schools closed down and every public space in the country began offering antiseptic or soap for cleaning hands. The outbreak has not yet reached its peak, authorities warn.

Hopefully, 2010 will offer more positive newness. If nothing else, the price of New Year’s osechi dishes have fallen at most department stores. The Japan Times wishes its readers a good year free of the anxieties and flu viruses that plagued 2009.

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