Japan: The Top Stories of 2016


Emperor Akihito conveys his wish to abdicate, US President Barack Obama makes a historical visit to Hiroshima, and newly elected Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko halts the opening of the Toyosu fish market over safety concerns. We take a look back on the biggest Japan-related stories of 2016.


Bank of Japan Announces Negative Interest Rates

The Bank of Japan on January 29 ushers Japanese monetary policy into a new age of negative interest rates by announcing it will apply a maximum rate of –0.1% on funds deposited by commercial banks. The policy goes into effect on February16. To mitigate side effects the BOJ in September announces yield curve control measures that aim to shore up the long-term interest rate for Japanese government bonds.


Tensions Rise as North Korea Launches Missile

North Korea launches a long-range missile, which Pyongyang claims is a communications satellite, from Sohae Space Center in North Pyongan Province on February 7. The rocket passes over Okinawa Prefecture shortly after launch. While Patriot interceptor missiles were moved into position in Tokyo and Okinawa, the Japanese government decides there is no need to take interceptive action. However, it tightens sanctions introduced after North Korea conducted a nuclear test on January 6. In response, the Korean Central News Agency on February 12 reports the North Korean regime has disbanded the committee established to investigate abductions of Japanese citizens.

Sharp to Join Foxconn

Struggling Japanese electronics giant Sharp announces on February 25 it will become part of Taiwanese manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry (which trades as Foxconn). After some uncertainty, the two sides finalize a deal on April 22 that sees Foxconn invest ¥388 billion in Sharp, marking the first foreign takeover of a major Japanese electronics firm.


Five Years on from 3/11

On March 11 ceremonies in Tōhoku and around Japan mark the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. A total of 18,449 died or remain missing, and there are more than 130,000 people who still live in temporary accommodations. In November a bullying incident in Yokohama involving a boy who was forced to flee his home following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station sheds light on the ongoing plight of evacuees.

Hokkaidō Shinkansen Rolls Out

Japan’s newest high-speed train line, the Hokkaidō Shinkansen, begins service on March 26, linking Tokyo and Hakodate-Hokuto Stations in 4 hours and 2 minutes.

Democratic Party of Japan Rebrands

The Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party merge on March 27 to become the Democratic Party (Minshintō). The DP on September 15 elects Renhō president, making the upper house legislator the first female leader of the largest opposition party since Doi Takako headed the Japan Socialist Party from 1986 to 1991.


Strong Quakes Devastate Kumamoto Communities

A series of strong earthquakes rattle Kumamoto Prefecture and surrounding areas. A total of 50 people are killed. More than 36,500 building are left damaged or destroyed, including historic Kumamoto Castle. The two main tremors, 6.5- and 7.3-magnitude temblors, strike on April 14 and 16, respectively. Both register 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale, making them the first events of such strength to strike Japan since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

Mitsubishi Comes Clean About Fuel Efficiency Data

Mitsubishi Motors on April 26 admits it manipulated fuel efficiency data for certain minicars to make it appear the vehicles got better mileage than was actually the case. The automaker immediately halts shipments of the models in question. On May 12 Nissan, for whom the cars had been produced and which brought the discrepancy to light, says it will pay ¥237 billion for a 34% share in Mitsubishi, becoming the controlling shareholder.


Abe Hosts G7 and Obama Visits Hiroshima

The heads of the Group of Seven countries gather for the Ise-Shima Summit in Mie Prefecture on May 26 and 27. The leaders pledge to tackle current economic challenges and lay the foundations for stronger long-term global growth. Following the summit US President Barrack Obama makes a historic visit to Hiroshima. During the visit, the first by a sitting US president, Obama tours the Peace Memorial Museum, lays flowers at the cenotaph together with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, and meets with hibakusha bomb survivors.


Consumption Tax Hike Put on Hold Again

Prime Minister Abe announces June 1 he will postpone a planned consumption tax hike from 8% to 10% until October 2019, citing a slowdown in emerging markets and other risks to the world economy. The raise was originally scheduled for October 2015 and later delayed to April 2017.


Landslide Win for Ruling Coalition

The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Kōmeitō wins 70 of the 121 seats contested in the July 10 House of Councillors election. The two parties, together with Initiatives from Osaka, Party for Japanese Kokoro, and other legislators favoring constitutional change, form a two-thirds majority in the Diet.

Pokémon Go Debuts in Japan

Augmented reality game Pokémon Go launches in Japan on July 22. Developed by Niantic based on Nintendo characters, the game quickly becomes a smash hit. However, success is marred by a number of game-related incidents, including a truck driver striking and killing a fourth-grade elementary school student in October.

Koike Yuriko Becomes First Female Governor of Tokyo

Former Defense and Environment Minister Koike Yuriko wins Tokyo’s gubernatorial race on July 31 to become the capital’s first female governor. She bucks party allegiances by defeating Masuda Hiroya, the officially sanctioned candidate from the Liberal Democratic Party to which Koike also belongs. On August 31 she halts the long-planned relocation of the Tsukiji Market to Toyosu over safety concerns at the site, showing she is willing to stand up the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s strong LDP caucus.


Emperor Expresses Wish to Step Down

The Imperial Household Agency on August 8 releases a video in which Emperor Akihito expresses his desire to abdicate. In the message the emperor states: “When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now.” On September 23 the government establishes an expert committee to consider the question of abdication. In November the group begins conducting hearings on the issue.

SMAP to Break Up

The Johnny & Associates talent agency, manager of popular idol band SMAP, announces on August 14 that the group will split up at the end of the year.

Olympic Flag Passes from Rio to Tokyo

The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro comes to a close on August 21. Japan’s athletes take home a record 41 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, and 21 bronze). At the closing ceremony, the flag is passed on to Koike Yuriko, governor of the 2020 host city Tokyo. Prime Minister Abe grabs international headlines when he makes a surprise appearance as iconic video game character Mario.


Missing Soil at Toyosu Market

Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko on September 10 announces that required preparations for relocation of the city’s main fish market from Tsukiji to Toyosu were not fully completed, as clean soil was not laid under three key facilities. On November 1 a specialist team appointed to reexamine safety measures releases a report that points to eight metropolitan officials as being responsible for the omission. Mercury readings at Toyosu exceed government safety standards, and Koike says that the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market will not happen until winter 2017 at the earliest.


Ōsumi Wins Nobel Prize

On October 3, Ōsumi Yoshinori, professor emeritus at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, is named as the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The award honors his discoveries of the mechanisms of autophagy, or “self-eating,” the process by which cells break down and recycle their own proteins.


Discussion on Constitutional Change Resumes

On November 16 and 17, panels in both of Japan’s legislative chambers hold substantive discussions on revising the Constitution. This is the first serious consideration of the issue since July’s House of Councillors vote saw the election of a two-thirds majority favorably inclined to constitutional change. The LDP stresses the need for prompt discussion on an amendment, including of Article 9.


Abe and Putin Agree at Summit to Start Talks on Joint Economic Activities

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a summit with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō on December 15 and 16 in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and Tokyo. While the meeting fails to resolve the Northern Territories issue, the two leaders announce an agreement to begin talks on joint economic activities in the disputed territories as an important first step in concluding a peace treaty.

Abe Visits Pearl Harbor

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō travels to Hawaii on December 26 and 27 to meet with outgoing US President Barack Obama and pay his respects at Pearl Harbor. Abe, while not the first prime minister to visit the US naval base, is the first Japanese head of government to participate in a public ceremony with an incumbent US president at the site of Japan’s surprise attack 75 years earlier.

(Banner photo: A player of smash hit game Pokémon Go searches for monsters at the Barra Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro on August 3, 2016.© Jiji.)