Japan: The Top Stories of 2017

Politics Economy Society

Toshiba’s financial woes worsen, controversy swirls around Prime Minister Abe Shinzō over shady land deals, and tensions grow as North Korea launches ballistic missiles. We look back on the biggest Japan-related stories of 2017.


Troubles Continue for Toshiba

Media reports indicate that Toshiba plans to sell its memory-chip operation and raise outside investment in a bid to stay afloat after massive losses from its failed US nuclear plant business. In February the firm declares its net worth at negative ¥191.2 billion as of the end of December 2016. In August it posts a loss of ¥965.6 billion, a record for a Japanese manufacturer.


Controversy over Sale of State-Owned Land

A House of Representatives budget committee on February 17 raises concerns over a sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen at an ¥800 million discount. In March, Moritomo Gakuen operator Kagoike Yasunori gives testimony at the Diet regarding the real estate deal and his connections with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and First Lady Abe Akie. In July police arrest Kagoike and his wife on fraud and other charges. In November the Board of Audit of Japan says it can find no convincing evidence for the estimated amount of waste buried under the land, the reason given for the lower sales price.


Tensions Mount as North Korea Launches Missiles

The Japanese government protests North Korea’s simultaneous launching of four ballistic missiles on March 6 after three fall in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Tensions climb over the succeeding months as Pyongyang continues testing its weapons. In late August a North Korean missile passes over Hokkaidō, triggering the J-Alert warning system nationwide. The Japanese and US governments in November adopt additional unilateral sanctions against North Korea, freezing the assets of 35 organizations and individuals linked to the country.

Work-Style Reform Inches Ahead

The government adopts an action plan for work-style reform that sets the upper limit for overtime at 720 hours annually, calls for equal pay for equal work, and requires employers to explain pay discrepancies between regular and nonregular workers. Plans to submit the legislation during the Diet’s autumn extraordinary session is postponed until the parliament reconvenes in January 2018.


Shōgi Prodigy Sets New Record

Fujii Sōta, Japan’s youngest professional shōgi player, sets a record by winning 11 consecutive official matches since his debut at the age of 14. He extends his winning streak in the succeeding months, reaching 29 in June before finally losing.


Abe Sets Target for Constitutional Reform

Prime Minister Abe, on the seventieth anniversary of the Japan’s postwar Constitution, sends a video in his capacity as Liberal Democratic Party president to a group aiming to revise the document. In it he sets 2020 as the target year for clarifying the existence of the Self-Defense Forces in the war-renouncing Article 9.

Princess Mako to Marry

Word gets out that Princess Mako, granddaughter of Emperor Akihito, will get engaged to Komuro Kei, a former university classmate and employee at a Tokyo law firm. The Imperial Household Agency in November announces the formal engagement and the wedding date of November 4, 2018.

New Veterinary School Raises Question of Influence Peddling

Prime Minister Abe faces allegations of influence peddling after a March 17 Asahi Shimbun article alleges he helped Kake Gakuen head Kake Kōtarō, a friend, get permission to build a new veterinary school in a specially designated strategic district. At a May 25 press conference, Maekawa Kihei, a former administrative vice education minister, states that the documents linking Abe to the deal are real. During a House of Councillors committee meeting, the prime minister denies the allegations. In November, Minister of Education Hayashi Yoshimasa approves the Kake Gakuen plan. Opposition parties in the Diet keep the pressure on Abe over his role in the matter.


Law Allows Emperor to Step Down

The government passed special legislation allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate, making him the first Japanese monarch to relinquish the Chrysanthemum Throne in 200 years. The emperor will step down on April 30, 2019, and Crown Prince Naruhito will accede to the throne on May 1 that year.

Conspiracy Law Passes

The House of Councillors approves a bill expanding the “conspiracies” class of crimes in organized crime legislation to include planning of terrorist acts. Despite protests by opposition parties, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Kōmeitō fast track the bill through the upper house’s Judicial Affairs Committee and take it directly to the chamber floor for a vote.


Koike Camp Defeats LDP in Tokyo Election

Governor Koike Yuriko’s Tomin Fāsuto no Kai (Tokyoites First) wins 49 seats in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election to become the leading party in the body. Kōmeitō and other supporters give the Koike camp a clear majority with 79 out of 127 seats. The Liberal Democratic Party drops from 57 to a record-low 23 seats.

Japan and EU Announce Trade Agreement

In Brussels, Prime Minister Abe meets with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker before announcing a broad Japan-EU trade accord. Under the economic partnership agreement Japan will immediately eliminate tariffs on many products, including wine, and gradually phase out others. The two sides finalize the deal in December with an eye to it taking effect in spring 2019.


Abe Reshuffles Cabinet

Amid slumping approval, Prime Minister Abe reshuffles his cabinet, replacing 13 of 19 ministers. Notable additions include Kōno Tarō as minister for foreign affairs and Noda Seiko as minister of internal affairs and communications. At a press conference on the same day, Abe walks back his earlier announcement about having an amended Constitution come into force by 2020.


Abe and Putin Discuss Economics and Northern Territories

Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Vladivostok and agree to promote joint economic activities in the Northern Territories, held by Russia since the end of World War II but claimed by Japan. On September 23, a group of 70 people that includes former residents of the disputed islands, their family members, and government officials make the first direct flight to visit graves on the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu.


Manufacturers Admit to Falsifying Data

Kobe Steel announces it falsified inspection certificates for some aluminum and copper products, meaning they did not meet client specifications. It also admits that managers covered up the problem. In November, Mitsubishi Materials says two subsidiaries tampered with product data and shipped products that did not satisfy internal and client requirements. The same month Toray admits that its subsidiary manipulated tire quality data.

LDP Wins General Election in Landslide

The Liberal Democratic party wins 284 seats in the House of Representatives election. Together with Kōmeitō, the ruling coalition secures 313 seats, just over the two-thirds majority needed to propose revision of the Constitution. The newly formed Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan captures 55 seats to become the largest opposition party. The Party of Hope spearheaded by Tokyo Governor Koike wins only 50 seats after losing its pre-election momentum.

Nine Dismembered Bodies Found in Zama apartment

Authorities discover the dismembered corpses of nine people in an apartment in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police arrest 27-year-old Shiraishi Takahiro, who lives in the apartment. Shiraishi admits to finding his victims, who range in age from 15 to 26, on so-called suicide websites and luring them to the apartment with promises of helping them take their own lives.


Trump Visits Japan

US President Donald Trump visits Japan for the first time since being elected. He and Prime Minister Abe agree to keep pressure on North Korea in response to the country’s ongoing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. While in Japan, the president and First Lady Melania Trump meet with the emperor and empress of Japan at the imperial palace.

Stocks Climb to Post-Bubble High

The Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Nikkei Index climbs to 22,937.60, beating the June 1996 post-asset bubble benchmark of 22,666 to close at its highest mark since January 1992.

Yokozuna Harumafuji Retires after Assault on Junior Wrestler

Mongolian-born yokozuna Harumafuji announces his retirement from sumō after it emerges that he assaulted a junior wrestler, Takanoiwa, during an October tour in Tottori Prefecture. In December, Tottori Prefectural Police question Harumafuji multiple times before handing the case over to prosecutors.


Bid-Rigging Emerges in Maglev Shinkansen Project

A special investigation team of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office and the Fair Trade Commission raid the offices of general contractors Kajima and Shimizu on December 18 for alleged bid-rigging on a project to build Japan’s first magnetic levitation Shinkansen. Construction giants Taisei and Ōbayashi are also suspected of violating the antimonopoly law by fixing bids for projects related to the work on the ultrahigh-speed train. Set to start service in 2027, the maglev Shinkansen is expected to cost ¥5.5 trillion to build and will link Tokyo and Nagoya in 40 minutes.

(Banner photo: US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump meet with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and the imperial palace on November 6, 2017. © Jiji.)