Japan: The Top News Stories of 2019

Society Politics Economy

A look back at the key news events that shaped 2019 for Japan and the Japanese people.


Following charges brought in the previous year, on January 11 the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office indicts former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn on an additional charge of aggravated breach of trust for transferring his private losses to the Japanese automaker. It also indicts him on the charge of hiding some of his executive pay for the past three years in violation of the Financial Instruments and Exchange Act. On January 15, the Tokyo District Court rejects Ghosn’s bail request.

Also on January 11, it emerges that French prosecutors have launched an investigation into Japanese Olympic Committee President Takeda Tsunekazu with a view to indicting him on suspicion of involvement in bribery to influence the selection of Tokyo as host city for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Tennis star Ōsaka Naomi defeats Czech player Petra Kvitová in the January 26 Australian Open women’s singles final to become the first Japanese winner of the tournament. It marks her second Grand Slam championship, following her 2018 US Open victory. On January 28, she becomes the first Asian, including both women and men, to top the world rankings.

On January 27, the five members of the popular male idol group Arashi shock their fans with an announcement that they will halt their activities as a band at the end of 2020. Group leader Ōno Satoshi says that he plans to quit show business in 2021.


The economic partnership agreement economic partnership agreement between Japan and the European Union comes into effect on February 1, creating a free-trade bloc accounting for 40% of international trade.

On February 12, teen swimming star Ikee Rikako announces on her Twitter account that she has been diagnosed with leukemia. Ikee who holds multiple national and junior world records, will take time off from the sport to battle her illness.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency announces on February 22 that the Hayabusa2 space probe has successfully landed on the Ryūgū asteroid. It confirms that at the time of landing the probe fired a projectile to throw up asteroid samples for collection.

On February 24, Renowned scholar of Japanese literature Donald Keene dies of heart failure at a Tokyo hospital at the age of 96. For activities including introducing the nation’s literature to a wider international audience, he was awarded the Order of Culture by the Japanese government in 2008.


On March 5, the architect Isozaki Arata is named as the winner of the 2019 Pritzker Architecture Prize, known as the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He is the eighth Japanese winner of the prize and the first since 2014.

Former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn is released on March 6 from the Tokyo Detention House after paying ¥1 billion in bail. He had been detained since his arrest on November 19 for allegedly understating his remuneration in violation of the Financial Instruments and Exchange Act. Following his release, he issues a statement proclaiming his innocence and his determination to fight the charges in court.

Released on bail, Carlos Ghosn (third from left, dressed in workman's clothes) leaves the Tokyo detention center on March 6. (© Jiji)
Released on bail, Carlos Ghosn (third from left, dressed in workman's clothes) leaves the Tokyo detention center on March 6. (© Jiji)

Baseball star Suzuki Ichirō announces his retirement on March 21, following a two-game season-opening series between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo. He finishes his career with a combined 4,367 hits in Japan and the United States.

Baseball superstar Ichirō at a March 22 Tokyo press conference after announcing his retirement from the sport. (© Jiji)
Baseball superstar Ichirō at a March 22 Tokyo press conference after announcing his retirement from the sport. (© Jiji)


On April 1, the Japanese government announces Reiwa as the name of the new era to begin on May 1. It is taken from a phrase in the Man’yōshū anthology of poetry, marking the first time that a Japanese classic text has been used as the basis for the era name.

In April 7 elections in Osaka, Osaka Ishin no Kai members Matsui Ichirō and Yoshimura Hirofumi successfully exchange the top jobs in the city and prefectural governments, with Matsui moving from prefectural governor to city mayor and Yoshimura in the opposite direction. The party’s plan to upgrade Osaka to a metropolis was seen as a key issue in the election.

On April 30, Emperor Akihito formally abdicates in a short ceremony at the Imperial Palace.


Emperor Naruhito ascends to the throne and the Reiwa era begins on May 1. In his first speech, he says, “When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed, I am filled with a sense of solemnity.” On May 4, he makes his first appearance before visitors to the Imperial Palace.

On May 14, Nippon Ishin no Kai expels lawmaker Maruyama Hodaka from the party after he suggests Japan could go to war with Russia to win control over the disputed Northern Territories. On May 17, a group of six opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Nippon Ishin no Kai submits a motion urging Maruyama to resign his seat.

An 11-year-old schoolgirl and the father of another child are killed in a May 28 mass stabbing attack on a group waiting for a school bus near Noborito Station in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. A total of 19 people, mainly children, are stabbed. The attacker also stabs himself in the neck and dies on the way to the hospital.


On June 8, Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank heads start two days of meetings in Fukuoka. On June 9, they adopt a joint statement reflecting concerns over US-China trade friction, noting the global economy’s downside risks and intensified trade and geopolitical tensions.

A powerful earthquake centered off Yamagata Prefecture causes 6-upper shaking in Murakami, Niigata Prefecture, on June 18. A 10-centimeter tsunami is recorded in the city of Niigata, with smaller tsunamis in nearby areas like Sado. The Japan Meteorological Agency estimates the earthquake’s magnitude as 6.7.

On June 28, the Group of 20 Summit convenes in Osaka. On June 29, leaders adopt the joint statement, “We strive to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.” US opposition led to a pledge to fight protectionism being excluded. Dealing with marine plastic pollution and setting international rules for data are two key topics of the summit.


The government announces on July 1 the tightening of controls on exports of semiconductor materials to South Korea. The controls will affect resists, hydrogen fluoride, and fluorinated polyimide used in organic electroluminescent displays for smartphones and other products. Representatives from the two countries hold their first discussions of the issue in Tokyo on July 12.

On July 6, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee announces the official registration of the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan on its World Heritage list. It is the first World Heritage site in Osaka Prefecture.

On July 10, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announces that there were 127,443,563 people living in Japan as of January 1, 2019, a year-on-year drop of 433,239 or 0.35%. This was the tenth successive decline and the largest decrease on record in terms of both population and percentage. The ratio of foreign residents in the population, meanwhile, rises above 2% for the first time.

A July 18 arson attack leads to a deadly fire and explosion at a Kyoto Animation studio; the death toll rises to 35 as of July 27. Kyoto police say that 74 people were in the building at the time of the attack. On July 20, police say they have obtained an arrest warrant for a man named Aoba Shinji on charges including murder, and that they plan to arrest him after he has recovered from full-body burns.

The ruling coalition secures a majority of contested seats in the July 21 House of Councillors election, winning 71 of the 124 available seats. However, forces supporting changes to the Constitution fall below the two-thirds total of 164 seats necessary to propose revisions, stopping short at 160.

On July 25, Nissan announces that its operating profit for April to June 2019 dropped 98.5% year-on-year from ¥109.1 billion to ¥1.6 billion, due to slumping sales in its key markets of the United States and Europe. The company says that it will cut more than 12,500 jobs at 14 of its locations around the world by fiscal 2022, including around 880 in Japan.


On August 2, the Japanese government decides to remove South Korea from its “white list” of trading partners that enjoy simplified export controls, in the first case of its kind. The move comes into effect on August 28. On August 12, the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy announces reciprocal measures.

Golfer Shibuno Hinako wins the 2019 Women’s British Open in her first appearance in the tournament, finishing 18 under par at the end of play on August 4. She is the first Japanese winner of a major golf championship since Higuchi Hisako won the LPGA Championship in 1977, and the second ever.

On August 22, friction between Japan and Korea escalates as the South Korean government announces it will scrap its General Security of Military Information Agreement pact for sharing military intelligence with Japan.


Typhoon Faxai makes landfall on September 9 near the city of Chiba in Chiba Prefecture. Record-breaking winds reaching a maximum of 57.5 meters per second are registered in the city. From the early morning, many train services are suspended, affecting some 2.8 million commuters. More than 900,000 homes in Chiba and Kanagawa Prefectures suffer power cuts, with more than two weeks required for total restoration of power in Chiba.

On September 15, Respect for the Aged Day, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announces that Japan’s senior population aged over 65 has risen by 320,000 to 35.9 million, representing 28.4% of the total population. This is the highest proportion among 201 countries and territories worldwide.

The first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia begins with a victory for Japan over Russia at the September 20 tournament opener at Tokyo Stadium. The Brave Blossoms go on to defeat a highly favored Irish team on September 28.


The consumption tax rate rises by 2 percentage points on October 1, to 10%. However, for the first time, there is a two-tier rate with some items remaining at 8%, as well as point rewards for cashless payment.

On October 12, Typhoon Hagibis makes landfall in the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture. It moves northeast across the country, bringing record rainfall that causes flooding and landslides and results in more than 90 fatalities.

Japan defeats Scotland 28–21 on October 13 in its final Pool A match of the Rugby World Cup, going undefeated in the group round after an October 5 win over Samoa. The Brave Blossoms qualify for the quarterfinal stage for the first time. On October 20, South Africa beats Japan 26–3 in the quarterfinal match; the Springboks go on to win the tournament in the November 2 final against England.

On October 13 in Yokohama, Japan's national team members celebrate their 28–21 victory over Scotland sending them to the quarterfinal round at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (© Jiji)
On October 13 in Yokohama, Japan's national team members celebrate their 28–21 victory over Scotland sending them to the quarterfinal round at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (© Jiji)

On October 16, the International Olympic Committee announces that it is considering moving the marathon and race walk events in the 2020 Summer Olympics from Tokyo to Sapporo. On October 25 the IOC confirms the Sapporo venue change.

Emperor Naruhito takes part in an October 22 ceremony at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, formally announcing to Japan and the world that he has ascended to the throne.

A fire that breaks out in the predawn hours of October 31 in the main hall of Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, destroys six buildings and a gate at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

The smoldering ruins of Shuri Castle in Okinawa on the morning of October 31. (© Jiji)
The smoldering ruins of Shuri Castle in Okinawa on the morning of October 31. (© Jiji)


Crowds gather in central Tokyo on November 10 to see Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako travel in a convertible from the Imperial Palace to the Akasaka Estate as part of a procession celebrating the imperial succession. The parade was originally scheduled to take place on October 22 following the enthronement ceremony, but was postponed out of consideration for people recovering from the blow of Typhoon Hagibis.

On November 13, the government decides to cancel the cherry blossom party hosted by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in 2020. Opposition parties had questioned the use of tax money for private purposes as many of Abe’s supporters had been invited each year.

Pope Francis arrives in Japan on November 23 for a short visit. On November 24, he travels to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, giving speeches advocating peace and nuclear disarmament. On November 25, he meets with Prime Minister Abe and Emperor Naruhito; on November 26 he gives a speech at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro dies on November 29 at the age of 101. During his premiership from 1982 to 1987, he privatized the state-run Japanese National Railways and forged stronger ties with the United States.


The House of Councillors on December 4 approves a trade deal between Japan and the United States, following the September agreement between Prime Minister Abe and President Donald Trump and the November endorsement by the House of Representatives. 

Nakamura Tetsu, a Japanese doctor working as a key member of a Japanese humanitarian aid organization, dies on December 4 after being shot in eastern Afghanistan. He was deeply involved in improving medical services and implementing agricultural irrigation projects in the war-torn country.

On December 6, Edano Yukio of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan proposes forming a unified bloc with the Democratic Party for the People, the Social Democratic Party, and other opposition parties. The aim of the merger is to create a political body that can compete more effectively with the ruling coalition.

Yoshino Akira, cowinner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, receives his award at a December 10 ceremony in Stockholm. Together with John Goodenough and Stanley Whittingham, Yoshino took the prize for the development of lithium-ion batteries.

A December 15 ceremony formally marks the completion of the new National Stadium in Tokyo, which will be the main arena of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, hosting the track and field events along with the opening and closing ceremonies.

On December 20, the government adopts a fiscal 2020 budget plan calling for general-account spending of ¥102.7 trillion, a record high. The figure is up 1.2%, or ¥1.2 trillion, from the initial budget for fiscal 2019, mainly due to rising social security costs.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, at left, leads three cheers of "Banzai!" to celebrate the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, standing on the platforms to the right, on October 22 at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. © Jiji.)

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