As we roll into 2023, let’s look at some of the news stories from last year that residents in Japan are still talking about.
Kishida Proposes Military Budget Increases
Just a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced plans to double defense spending over the next five years, increasing total outlays to 2% of GDP by 2027. The goal, said Kishida, is to ensure the safety of Japan in an “increasingly severe security environment.” Naturally, he was referring to increased military activity by China in the Taiwan Strait and the larger region, as well as a record number of missile tests by North Korea, some flying directly over northern Japan. The proposed enhancements include the ability for Japan to engage in counterstrikes in the event of a direct attack on the nation.
The government released a budget that includes the announced military spending goals, so it looks like a done deal. But an announcement of this type seemed unlikely a few years ago, when former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō struggled to strengthen Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, the section where the nation renounces war as a method of resolving conflict. Given what happened to Japan at the end of World War II, it’s not surprising that a large portion of the citizenry leans toward pacifism. But a survey by broadcaster NHK in October found that 55% of respondents approved of increased defense spending, and another survey by Kyodo News noted 60% approval for counterstrike capabilities.
Assassination of Former Prime Minister Abe
On July 8, a gunman killed former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who was giving a campaign speech on a public street in Nara. The shooter, Yamagami Tetsuya, targeted Abe for his supposed connection to the Unification Church, a religious group that Yamagami said had brain-washed his mother and ruined his family. The assassination of a major political figure committed in broad daylight was shocking enough, but the use of a homemade gun in a country where gun ownership is extremely rare made the crime that much more astonishing.
Controversy arose over whether Abe deserved a state funeral, paid for with taxpayer funds. But the primary fallout came from the relationship that many active legislators had with the Unification Church, identified as a cult by its detractors. Prime Minister Kishida reshuffled his cabinet to remove those with ties to the church from leadership positions (though one remained) and announced that any member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who refused to cut ties with the church would be expelled.
The Unification Church’s presence in Japan—it was founded in Korea—is also at risk of being dismantled. Japanese law grants government to authority to shut down deceptive or dangerous churches, though the law has only been applied twice so far. The group has been accused of manipulating its members and using strong-arm tactics to extract money from adherents. Just as concerning is the extent to which the group was able to build connections with politicians, especially within the ruling LDP.
Government Plans Return to Nuclear Energy
In another December announcement, Prime Minister Kishida outlined a change in Japan’s nuclear energy policy that would increase its use more than five-fold over the next decade. Currently, Japan gets about 4% of its energy needs from nuclear power plants. Under the new policy, 22% of the country’s electrical needs would be met by fission reactors by 2030. The new standards also allow existing plants to operate beyond their current 60-year lifespan, and enable plant operators to transition to more efficient and safer forms of nuclear power generation.
Japan has long had a tenuous relationship with nuclear power, and the Fukushima disaster that occurred back in 2011 didn’t help. All plants across the country were shut down after that incident for safety reevaluations. As of this writing, fewer than a third of all reactors have been reactivated. Various groups had called for all nuclear energy facilities in Japan to be fully decommissioned. But without that resource, the country would need to import virtually all of its power needs, something that many nations are rethinking in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and concerns over climate change.
Yen Drops to Historically Weak Levels
The global pandemic forced nations around the globe to go further into debt in order to provide social and medical safety nets to their residents. The United States thought that, since we are borrowing all of this money anyway, we might as well spend a few trillion more on some other programs. All this spending led to a sudden burst of inflation in the US and beyond. Japan has seen a rise in inflation above its recent near-zero levels. Because of variances in monetary policy, Japan found the value of its currency dropping quickly in comparison with the dollar and other base currencies.
By late October, the currency was cresting at around 150 yen per US dollar, a 32-year low. Compare that to the 105 yen-per-dollar rate it had enjoyed a year earlier. This imbalance is great for exports, as businesses and consumers overseas are able to buy Japanese products for a greatly reduced cost. On the downside, those in Japan are forced to pay as much as 50% more for imported goods. This includes some of the raw materials needed to manufacture goods for domestic use or international resale.
The Bank of Japan has done some tinkering to keep things from getting too crazy. But it is standing firm on its overall monetary easing policy, hoping a modest injection of inflation can trigger wage increases in a country that has seen stagnant incomes for decades.
The Coronavirus Pandemic Just Won’t Stop
A headline just a few days ago claimed that “Japan logged 27.5 million new COVID-19 cases in 2022.” Emotionally, that’s all I have to say on that topic.
[Image Credits: Andrea Piacquadio/pexels.com]