Every December, the “kanji of the year” that represents the events and popular sentiments over the past 12 months is announced. In 2018, the character “sai” (meaning “disaster”) was chosen because Japan was hit by a series of serious natural disasters that resulted in extensive damage — from the big earthquakes in Hokkaido, northern Osaka and western Shimane prefectures, to the torrential rains that hit western Japan and the devastating typhoons.
Big disasters were the top events that characterized Japan last year, but other important events also took place. When a reporter asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga what he would choose as his kanji of the year, Suga reportedly picked up the character “sei” — which means “accomplishing something.”
Indeed, last year witnessed the enactment of several pieces of legislation in the Diet that had previously been deemed difficult — including a law lifting the ban on integrated resorts featuring casinos, the first amendment to the Labor Standards Law in 70 years, a revision to the immigration control law that opens the door wider to foreign workers and an amendment to the water supply law. The government managed to steer through the tight Diet schedule to get the legislation approved despite stiff opposition in the legislature.
The government was in a hurry to get this legislative agenda through the Diet because there are so many national events scheduled this year and it’s believed that the government wanted to have the pending legislation enacted before that. In that sense, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a strategic political timetable and runs his administration according to the timetable.
It must be noted, however, that each of the many events planned this year could stir up controversies — and could be influenced by a turn in the economic and in the political environments. These events provide both politicians and business leaders with both risks and opportunities.
So what national events lie ahead? The prime minister attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after visiting Britain and Russia in late January. During his trip to Moscow, Abe discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin how the two countries should settle the Northern Territories issue, which concerns a group of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, and conclude a formal World War II peace treaty.
Last year, Abe took a clear turn toward the position of seeking to resolve the dispute by first getting the two smaller islands back instead of the previous government policy of demanding a return of all the islands seized by Soviet forces in 1945. Abe hopes to settle the dispute in subsequent talks with Putin later in the year. It needs to be closely watched if his strategy leads to progress in the dispute that has remained a thorn in the side of Tokyo-Moscow relations for the past seven decades.
Come April, there will be a nationwide series of local elections. What’s being contested are the gubernatorial and mayoral elections in prefectures and municipalities as well as local assembly races, but the series of local elections will take on importance as a precursor to the Upper House election this summer.
Around the same time the races are held, a casino management committee will be launched. The enactment of the integrated resort legislation last year paves the way for creation of casinos in three locations. Prior to this, Japan had been the only Group of Seven country that had not legalized casinos. The new committee will be responsible for managing the operation of casinos, and will decide on concrete rules on how the operators will be chosen for specific projects. It will be an event that attracts the attention of related industries around the world — since each project is estimated to have an economic impact of up to ¥1 trillion.
By far the biggest scheduled event of the year will be the abdication of Emperor Akihito at the end of April and the enthronement of the new emperor on May 1, with the introduction of a new name for the era under the latter’s reign. Japan’s Imperial family — which is believed to have the longest history among the world’s royal families — always attracts global attention.
The Upper House election, which will be held in July, will also be a very important event for Abe that will be crucial to preventing his administration from falling into lame duck status. There will be more events to follow in subsequent months, including the Tokyo International Conference on African Development at the end of August, as well as the Rugby World Cup that starts in September — which will kick off the momentum of Japan organizing major international sports events leading to the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
In October, the consumption tax will be hiked to 10 percent; whether Japan’s economy will survive the tax hike intact is this year’s biggest issue in terms of economic policy.
In my view, particular attention should be paid to the Upper House election in July. Voters tend to behave cautiously in casting their ballots in Lower House elections — knowing that they are choosing the government — and that generally favors the ruling parties and the administration in power. In Upper House elections, however, the voters tend more to behave critically toward the government.
Depending on its outcome, the Upper House race might present Abe with tough challenges in running the administration. That prospect raises speculation that Abe might dissolve the Lower House for simultaneous elections in both chambers of the Diet. If there is progress in the talks with Russia over the territorial dispute, one plausible scenario might be that Abe will seek voters’ judgment on the wisdom of settling the issue with a return of the two smaller islands. Should Abe win in such an election, he would cement the foundation for keeping his long-running administration in power.
2019 is indeed full of major events. It is a year in which Japan needs to be closely watched both politically and economically.
Heizo Takenaka, a professor emeritus at Keio University, served as economic and fiscal policy minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2005. He is a member of the government’s Industrial Competitiveness Council.