December 2023

Extreme weather, a flailing Kishida, hungry bears, and the posthumous disgrace of Japan’s most infamous child sex abuser

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

Could 2023 be the year that finally killed off the cliché about Japan’s four distinct seasons? The hottest July in 100,000 years, with 90 consecutive days of daytime highs in Tokyo over 30C; summer effectively stretched all the way till the first week of November, when the mercury hit 27.5C - more proof, if needed, that the nation’s weather is seriously out of whack. 

Get used to it, warned climate specialist Dr Yoshihiro Tachibana of Mie University. The future will be even hotter, winters will be short, and spring and autumn will essentially disappear, he told Shukan Gendai.

Sadly, this calamitous scenario does not seem to stir policymakers. Japan fell five places in the 2023 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), which tracks the climate mitigation efforts of 59 countries and the European Union, collectively accounting for most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 and a 46% emissions reduction by 2030, Japan scored a lowly 50th place in the index because it lacks a clear plan for delivering these goals, “with few concrete policies in place for meeting either target”, lamented the CCPI.

Human interaction with the natural world also featured heavily in the media during Japan’s short-lived autumn, with reports of a record number of bear attacks and encounters, particularly in Hokkaido and the northernmost prefectures of Honshu.

Experts attribute the rising number of incidents to a combination of bumper crops of acorns and beechnuts last year – which resulted in the presence of larger bear cubs – and, ironically, a shortage of the dietary staples this year. That, they say, is forcing more animals to venture into populated areas in search of food before they go into hibernation. If, in fact, they eventually submit to dormancy during the coldest months. As the mercury finally began to drop, the Mainichi Shimbun warned that the winter would not necessarily bring respite for worried residents due to the emergence of non-hibernating “sleepless bears” – hungry animals that will continue to wander around in search of food when they should be asleep.

Ursine fear was preceded by a “terror” of another kind earlier in the year, when social media posts of people misbehaving themselves in chain kaitenzushi restaurants resulted in arrests and forced Japan’s multibillion-dollar fast-food sector to overhaul its already fastidious approach to hygiene.

A clip of one of the most stomach-churning incidents of “sushi terrorism” showed a teenager licking the open top of a communal soy sauce bottle and rubbing saliva on passing food. In response, chains scrambled to restore their reputation for cleanliness, with some removing conveyor belts to keep temptation out of the way of diners brandishing smartphones and seeking their 15 minutes of infamy.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man - but that man will surely not be Fumio Kishida. The prime minister’s popularity tumbled almost as fast as climate records, and as the year ends, he is being tipped for the Liberal Democratic Party’s crowded political graveyard. A Jiji Press poll in November put support for his cabinet at 21.3%, inching him closer to the deeply unpopular government of Taro Aso in July 2009, before it was sent packing by the Democratic Party of Japan.

Many voters hold Kishida responsible for falling living standards - his nickname, the four-eyed tax hiker, alludes to his efforts to fund a huge hike in defense spending.

Over 60% believe the LDP still has ties to the Unification Church, better known in the West as the Moonies, despite Kishida’s efforts to distance the party from the organisation. 2003 draws to a close with the sound of political knives being quietly unsheathed in Kasumigaseki. “I sense weakness in your decisions and your words,” Hiroshige Seko, the leader of the LDP in the Upper House told a visibly uncomfortable Kishida in the Diet.

Kishida’s brief moment in the international spotlight came in May, when he hosted G7 leaders in Hiroshima, where he has a constituency. While he and his counterparts feasted on okonomiyaki and oysters, the media awaited the highlight of the three-day summit: the “surprise” arrival of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The Russian invasion and Zelenskiy’s participation meant the first city to be attacked by a nuclear weapon became the venue for high-level discussions on how to win a war against a foe that has refused to rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Against a backdrop of war, it surprised precisely no one in the international media centre that another existential threat – climate change – barely got a look-in.

While Japan and South Korea finally made a serious attempt to settle differences arising from their shared wartime history, the geopolitical landscape had a familiar look to it: a flurry of north Korean missile tests and, only weeks ago, the launch of Pyongyang’s first spy satellite.

The forthcoming trilateral summit between Kishida and Xi Jinping – along with Yoon Suk Yeol – is cause for mild optimism, but the release in August of treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant demonstrated the size of the diplomatic challenges awaiting the leaders of the world’s second- and third-biggest economies.

The first batch of more than 1 million tons of treated water, which still contains the radioactive isotope tritium, due to be discharged into the Pacific Ocean over the next three to four decades had barely begun when China and Hong Kong announced bans on seafood from Fukushima and other regions to “prevent the risk of radioactive contamination of food safety”.

China’s stance invited criticism from scientists. Most agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s assessment that tritium levels in Fukushima treated water are within boundaries not considered to be harmful to the marine environment or human health. They also pointed out that China’s own nuclear power plants release wastewater with higher levels of tritium than that found in Fukushima’s discharge. The ban has deprived Japanese producers of access to a large and lucrative market, but seafood lovers no doubt celebrated the surfeit of scallops and other marine delicacies that suddenly appeared on the domestic market.

This has been the year of the rabbit, according to the Japanese juunishi zodiac, but in the sporting world the year belonged to the tiger … of the Hanshin variety. After 38 years of frustration and agonising near-misses, the Tigers finally ended the “curse of the colonel” to lift the Japan Series title for only the second time in their history, sparking wild celebrations in Osaka. The city has had a good year. It is also home to Hanshin’s opponents in the finale of the professional baseball season, Orix Buffaloes. It was a rare encounter between the two – the first for almost 60 years – and gave locals another reason to celebrate their supremacy over Tokyo-based teams, not least the once-invincible Yomiuri Giants. In 1985, the last time Hanshin were proclaimed Nippon Ichi, fans celebrated the team’s pennant title by hurling themselves into the murky, bacteria-riddled waters of the Dotonbori canal. Only a few indulged in the ritual this year, thanks mainly to a heavy police presence on Ebisubashi bridge. For those who didn’t make it over the side … no doubt their health will thank them for it.

The year arguably belongs, though, to Kauan Okamoto and survivors of sexual abuse by Johnny Kitagawa.  Following a BBC documentary about the abuse in March, Okamoto told the FCCJ that he and almost all of the 100-200 boys who stayed at Kitagawa’s penthouse apartment during his four years with the agency were abuse victims. This astonishing testimony changed the atmosphere in Japan “for good”, said the Asahi Shimbun and unleashed a tsunami of revelations that crashed over Kitagawa’s company, Johnny & Associates, the country’s top male talent agency. 

In September, Julie Fujishima, the agency’s president and Kitagawa’s niece said she was stepping down and announced a compensation scheme for abuse victims. A month later, aware that the agency’s name permanently linked it with Japan’s most infamous child sex abuser of modern times, the agency unveiled a new title: Smile Up. By the end of November, over 830 men had reportedly contacted the agency’s Victims Relief Committee (made up of three former judges) seeking redress, of which 35 people had been contacted for interviews. 

In addition to monetary compensation, Smile Up said it would also offer “a ‘psychological care consultation room’ supervised by an outside specialist, a psychosomatic physician, and a licensed psychologist”. It added: “We apologize to all those who have been affected by this incident, and while there is still a long road ahead in terms of compensation and relief, we will continue to regularly report on the progress of damage compensation and measures to prevent a recurrence.”

It was a long way from the days when victims were smeared and blackballed for speaking out, or even when Fujishima said in May that she “couldn’t have known” about her uncle’s crimes because both he and her mother Mary, who ran the company, were dead. For good measure, Fujishima ruled out a third-party probe on the “advice of an outside expert” that there could be “psychological burdens” on people who would be questioned.  If there was a prize for the most cynical or self-serving comment of 2023, that would surely be in the running.

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for the Independent, the Economist and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Justin McCurry is the Japan and Korea correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer in London, and the author of War on Wheels: Inside Keirin and Japan’s Cycling Subculture (Profile Books 2021).