Japan: The Top News Stories of 2020

Politics Economy Society

The year’s news was dominated by COVID-19 in 2020 in Japan, as around the world. A look back at the events that impacted the country and its people during the last year.


The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism announces on January 10 that 31.9 million foreign visitors came to Japan in 2019, hitting a new record for the seventh consecutive year.

On January 16, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare announces confirmation of the first case in Japan of infection with the coronavirus that was initially identified in Wuhan, China. On February 13, the Ministry of Health announces that a Japanese woman in her eighties who had never visited China has died in Kanagawa Prefecture after contracting COVID-19. It is the first death on Japanese soil caused by the coronavirus. During January and February, the Japanese government dispatches five charter flights to evacuate Japanese nationals from Wuhan.

The International Union of Geological Sciences on January 17 announces the ratification of the name “Chibanian” for the geological era from around 129,000 to 774,000 years ago. It takes its name from the decision that a stratum at a location in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, is the most important reference point for studying the period boundary about 770,000 years ago.


The Diamond Princess cruise ship is quarantined at Yokohama on February 3 after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was found to be infected with the novel coronavirus. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare begins testing of all passengers and crew members.; in all, more than 700 cases are reported on the ship, with 13 deaths resulting. By March 1, all 3,711 passengers and crew members are able to disembark.

The Osaka District Court on February 19 sentences Kagoike Yasunori, formerly the head of the Moritomo Gakuen school operator, to five years in prison, and his wife Junko to three years in prison, suspended for five years, for fraudulently receiving public subsidies. The two were accused of receiving around ¥170 million in subsidies from the state government and the Osaka prefectural and municipal governments, but Kagoike Junko was found not guilty of defrauding the latter two.

On February 27, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō requests the closure of all Japanese elementary, junior high, and high schools, as well as special schools for children with disabilities, from March 2 until the spring vacation beginning toward the end of the month. The eventual length of the closures vary by region; in Tokyo, school doors remain shut for some three months, until the end of May.

On February 28, as the number of infections in Hokkaidō rises, Governor Suzuki Naomichi declares a state of emergency and calls on residents to stay at home over the weekend. Operators of Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea and Universal Studios Japan announce they will close from February 29 to March 15.


The Japan Sumō Association announces on March 1 that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the spring Grand Sumō Tournament in Osaka due to start on March 8 will be held behind closed doors. It is the first time there have been no spectators at a major sumō tournament since 1945.

On March 5, the government announces that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned April state visit to Japan has been postponed.

The Yokohama District Court sentences Uematsu Satoshi to death on March 16 for killing 19 people and wounding 26 others at his former workplace, a care home for mentally disabled people in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.

On March 24, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are postponed until 2021 in an unprecedented move.


On April 7, the government adopts a ¥108 trillion economic stimulus package, equivalent to around 20% of Japan’s gross domestic product, to fight COVID-19 and help the domestic economy recover from its impact. This includes ¥39.5 trillion in direct fiscal spending. On the same day, Prime Minister Abe declares a state of emergency aimed at containing the COVID-19 outbreak in Tokyo and six other prefectures; this is expanded nationwide on April 16. The emergency declaration remains in effect until it is cancelled in stages in mid- to late May.

The Softbank Group on April 13 forecasts a ¥750 billion net loss for the year ended March 2020, having recorded huge losses through its Vision Fund and investments in other companies. On April 30, it revises the figure upward to ¥900 billion.

On April 20, the cabinet adopts its supplementary budget for fiscal 2020, including a ¥100,000 payment per person. General account spending under the revised budget is ¥25.7 trillion. It is approved in the Diet on April 30.


The Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute announces on May 12 the discovery of a stone wall and moat of Kyoto Shinjō castle, thought to have been built by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in his later years. It is the first part of the castle to have been discovered.

A postal worker delivers  “Abenomasks,” cloth masks distributed by the government to every household in Japan, in Ōsaka on May 12. (© Jiji)
A postal worker delivers “Abenomasks,” cloth masks distributed by the government to every household in Japan, in Ōsaka on May 12. (© Jiji)

On May 20, the Japan High School Baseball Federation announces the cancellation of the summer high school baseball tournament for the first time in the postwar era. This follows the March 11 cancellation of the spring tournament, also a first; on June 10, the Federation announces that teams selected for the canceled spring invitational tournament will play in friendly matches starting on August 10 behind closed doors at the Kōshien stadium.

On May 27, the government approves a second supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 with measures related to the COVID-19 outbreak. It amounts to ¥31.9 trillion, raising the overall stimulus package to ¥117.1 trillion.


On June 18, former Justice Minister Kawai Katsuyuki and his wife Anri, both current lawmakers, are arrested by Tokyo prosecutors in connection with vote-buying allegations related to her campaign in the July 2019 House of Councillors election. The two plead not guilty when their trial begins in August; following a suspension of trial hearings, the verdict is expected to be handed down in the new year.

On June 19, the Japanese professional baseball season begins with games played behind closed doors. Beginning on July 10, limited numbers of fans are allowed to attend the games for the rest of the season, which runs to just 120 games, instead of the usual 143. In addition to professional baseball and sumō, the J. League soccer season sees a four-month blank as play is canceled due to the pandemic.

The Riken research institute announces on June 23 that the Fugaku supercomputer it is developing in collaboration with Fujitsu and other partners is listed as the fastest in the world in four global rankings, the first time for a Japanese machine to top the listings since 2011, when the Kei supercomputer held first place.


On July 3, the dire economic news associated with COVID-19 continues as the Government Pension Investment Fund announces that it posted a loss of ¥17.7 trillion during the first quarter of 2020.

Starting on July 4, the rainy season front brings torrential downpours to Kyūshū. The Kuma River in Kumamoto Prefecture overflows its banks, and there are landslides and flooding. A total of 70 fatalities are recorded across Kyūshū.

In a July 5 election Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko is reelected by a landslide, receiving over 3.6 million votes, the second-highest total ever received in a Tokyo gubernatorial contest.

The government-subsidized “Go To Travel” tourism promotion program begins on July 22, earlier than the first half of August, as originally planned. The program, which covers up to half of travel costs through lodging discounts and coupons good for use in restaurants and stores in travelers’ destinations, is marked by chaos as Tokyo residents are excluded early on due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the capital. Tokyoites are allowed to take part starting on October 1, but on December 14, the government decides to put the program on hold for two weeks including the New Year break.

The Cabinet Office on July 30 forecasts Japan’s gross domestic product to shrink by 4.5% in fiscal 2020—a considerable drop from the January forecast of 1.4% growth, and steeper than the 3.4% decline during the global financial crisis in fiscal 2008.


On August 5, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announces that as of January 1, 2020, Japan had 124,271,318 citizens, a drop of 505,046 (0.40%) from the previous year. This is the largest-ever decrease in the eleventh consecutive year of decline. The number of foreign residents, meanwhile, rose by 199,516 to a record 2,866,715, or 2.25% of the total population.  

On August 17, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, records a temperature of 41.1º Celsius at ten minutes after noon, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. This equals the highest ever temperature in Japan, previously reported in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on July 23, 2018.

On August 28, Prime Minister Abe announces his intention to resign, saying that a recurrence of his chronic ulcerative colitis has made it difficult for him to continue in his position. This follows his becoming Japan’s longest continuously serving prime minister ever on August 24, having led the country’s government for 2,799 consecutive days since 2012.


On September 6, Typhoon Haishen moves north off the western coast of Kyūshū, causing high winds and waves, landslides and flooding from heavy rains, and swollen rivers in the island’s prefectures and Yamaguchi Prefecture on Honshū. There is one fatality each in the prefectures of Kagoshima, Miyazaki, and Saga. Three people also go missing following a landslide in Shiiba, Miyazaki Prefecture.

Ōsaka Naomi on September 12 wins the US Open women’s singles competition for the second time, two years after her first success. She had initially withdrawn from the Cincinnati Masters the previous month as part of a strike by athletes protesting against the police shooting of African-American Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In each of the seven rounds of the US Open, she wore a mask with the name of a different black victim of racism.

On September 10, NTT Docomo stops new registrations linking accounts at 35 banks to its e-money service Docomo Kōza after a series of hacking incidents siphons money from user accounts. It also announces it will compensate customers for the stolen money. By September 14, a total of 120 hacking cases are reported, with total thefts rising to some ¥25.4 million. Japan Post Bank, a partner bank of the service, reports on September 17 that ¥21.5 million has been taken in 136 hacking cases involving its users’ accounts.

Abe Shinzō steps down as prime minister on September 16 and his cabinet resigns. On the same day Suga Yoshihide, who became president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in an election on September 14, announces his new cabinet.

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, at front center, poses with his new cabinet on September  16 at the Kantei. (© Jiji)
Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, at front center, poses with his new cabinet on September 16 at the Kantei. (© Jiji)


The Tokyo Stock Exchange suspends trading in all listed stocks after a system glitch on October 1. The bourses in Sapporo, Nagoya, and Fukuoka, which rely on the same system, also shut down. This is the first full-day halt since trading became fully computerized in May 1999. Trading restarts on October 2.

In his first meeting with a senior foreign official, Prime Minister Suga holds talks in Tokyo with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on October 6. The two agree that the countries will further strengthen the alliance toward the goal of realizing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision and will work closely with Australia, India, and other regional partners.

On October 19, Suga departs on his first overseas trip as Japanese leader, meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, reaching agreement on a pact allowing Japan to export defense equipment and technology to Vietnam. On October 20, he travels to Bogor, Indonesia, where he meets with President Joko Widodo and announces a plan to extend ¥50 billion in soft loans to Indonesia.

In his first parliamentary policy speech, on October 26 Prime Minister Suga says that he will seek to both contain the COVID-19 pandemic and support economic activity. He expresses his resolve to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2021, and says that Japan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.


In a referendum, voters narrowly reject a proposal to scrap the municipality of Osaka and replace it with four special wards within a metropolitan district. The plan was previously rejected in a 2015 referendum. Nippon Ishin no Kai leader and Osaka Mayor Matsui Ichirō takes responsibility for the defeat and announces his retirement from politics at the end of his term as mayor in April 2023.

The rise of Crown Prince Fumihito to first in line to the throne is formally proclaimed in ceremonies at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The rites, originally scheduled for April 19 but postponed due to the pandemic, are the final state ceremonies accompanying the abdication of Emperor Emeritus Akihito and the May 2019 enthronement of Emperor Naruhito.

Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agree to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which will abolish tariffs for 91% of products with the aim of boosting freer trade and growing economies in the region.

Buoyed by reports of successful SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development and expectations of the return of normal economic activities, the benchmark Nikkei average closes at 26,014.62 on November 17, its first time to clear the 26,000 mark since May 1991, during the bubble economy’s collapse.

On November 25, Prime Minister Suga holds talks with Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tokyo. Suga shows concern about intrusions of China’s vessels into waters around the Senkaku Islands and its tightening control of Hong Kong, calling on it to take positive action. He also stresses the importance of stable relations between Japan and China.


On December 14, film distributors Tōhō and Aniplex announce that total box office revenues for the animated feature Kimetsu no yaiba (Demon Slayer) have topped ¥30 billion domestically. Based on the smash hit manga series of the same name, the movie is the first to clear the ¥30 billion mark in Japan since the 2001 Ghibli hit Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away), directed by Miyazaki Hayao.

JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, announces on December 14 that the Hayabusa2 probe, which returned to Earth in a December 6 Australia landing, has successfully come back with black sand particles and gas collected from the asteroid Ryūgū. It is the first successful capture of material from a carbonaceous type-C asteroid, thought to include water and organic compounds.

A monitor shows staff at JAXA's campus in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, celebrating on December 6 following confirmation that the Hayabusa2 probe's capsule has reentered Earth's atmosphere on its way to landing in Australia.  A model of the probe stands before the screen.  (© Jiji)
A monitor shows staff at JAXA’s campus in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, celebrating on December 6 following confirmation that the Hayabusa2 probe’s capsule has reentered Earth’s atmosphere on its way to landing in Australia. A model of the probe stands before the screen. (© Jiji)

On December 15 the cabinet approves a third supplementary budget bill for fiscal 2020 in a further effort to keep the economy afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ¥21.8 trillion budget brings total government expenditures for the fiscal year to ¥175.7 trillion, an increase of around 70% from the original annual budget.

On December 21, public prosecutors question former Prime Minister Abe over spending on dinner banquets held on the nights before cherry-blossom-viewing parties held annually in recent years. One of Abe’s secretaries, who was responsible for making the payments to cover party costs in violation of the Political Funds Control Act, is indicted on December 24, but Abe escapes indictment in the case.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: A security worker at Ōsaka’s Kōshien checks the body temperature of fans as they enter the stadium on July 10, 2020. © Jiji.)

sports Abe Shinzō Suga Yoshihide COVID-19