Photo:jpellgen on Flickr

Looking Ahead: My Hopes for Japan in 2016

As we face the dawn of a new year, its common practice to look back on the year just past and reflect. We reflect not only on what has been achieved in this year, but also perhaps contemplate areas where things didn’t go so well. What mistakes were made and what lessons were learned during this past year?

In doing so, it is important that one does not get too overly critical or high minded, lest one comes across as a pretentious know it all.

However a little bit of contemplation and meditation on this year’s experiences certainly doesn’t do any harm.

Overall, it’s been a good year. I finally gained a formal certification in Japanese language, I am more than halfway towards my health and fitness goals, and I have continued to write, to teach and to enhance myself through learning and experience.

It begins with hopes always, the New Year!

It begins with hopes always, the New Year!

Photo: Amy Ross on Flickr

A year older, and certainly, I hope, I little wiser than before.

So, what’s next for me and my place in Japan in 2016?

Well for one, I hope you enjoy my inane ramblings here on Taiken Japan, because I’m certainly not going anywhere! I plan to expand my writing next year, and perhaps, finally write that novel I have always dreamed about.

More on that later!

Anyway, back on topic. This is after all, supposed to be a blog about Japan, not my own delusions of grandeur!

Like my own personal life, 2015 has also been a time of progress for Japan, albeit with a few hiccups along the way.

New Wishes Each Year.

New Wishes Each Year.

Photo: troy_williams on Flickr

Japan, finally signed up to the international treaty on child abduction, finally bringing it in line with other first world countries, and bringing renewed hope to thousands of displaced parents. Progress was also made towards balancing the books, with the government backtracking on its initial, overly-indulgent preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in favour of a more realistic, cost effective model. Tensions with neighbours China and Korea remain an ever-present issue, but yet again dialogue continues and many commentators remain hopeful that a peaceful coexistence built on mutual respect and humility can be achieved.

The Japanese economy has not recovered to the extent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had hoped it would by now. This is prompted him to “indefinitely postpone” his next planned hike on the consumption tax, from the present 8% to 10%. It might not sound like much, but even an extra 20-30 yen on a regular train fare sure does mount up over the course of a year.

Prime Minister of Japan, Mr Shinzo Abe in action.

Prime Minister of Japan, Mr Shinzo Abe in action.

Photo: Presidencia de la República Mexicana on Flickr

However, it’s not just the economy where Abe has had his problems. A number of his flagship policies have been rammed through the Japanese parliament, many commentators have argued without the sufficient time allowed for debate. It should also be mentioned that two of his most controversial policies, namely his “reinterpreting” of Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow overseas troop deployments for the first time since the Second World War and his “State Secrets Bill” have met fierce public rebuttal.

The constitutional reinterpretation in particular inspired a level of protest and political engagement, particularly among the youth of Japan at an unprecedented level.

Notorious for their previous detachment from the political process, with the voting age coming down to 18 for the first time at the next election, it will be interesting to see what impact this new generation of politically motivated youngsters will have on Japan’s future political direction and aspirations.

The state secrets bill, whilst not angering the public to the same extent as the constitutional reinterpretation, has also garnered massive criticism, particularly from the legal and journalistic professions.

Protest at Shibuya, Tokyo

Protest at Shibuya, Tokyo

Photo: Corbin Keech on Flickr

As a journalist myself, I have to say that I believe the truth should always be told, and that transparency both in government and in public life in general is an essential element that those who seek to lead any nation cannot ignore. The constitutionality of this law is yet to be decided, and in the wake of crumbling public support and falling approval ratings, it remains to be seen if the Abe administration will be inclined to reverse tack on the issue.

Either way, this isn’t an issue that’s going away anytime soon. It is set play a huge part in Japanese politics in 2016, and beyond. If the currently huge gap between the government’s ideals and those of the legal establishment isn’t bridged through negotiation, it may well end up in a constitutional court. Prime Minister Abe certainly doesn’t have his troubles to seek at the moment.

Given his past form, one hopes that he has the stomach for the fight!

For all I may disagree with some of his more controversial policies, much like his forerunner, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, there is a certain extent to which one has to admire Abe’s determination and tenacity. Whilst I fundamentally disagreed with almost everything Thatcher did during her premiership, and certainly with a far higher and more personal degree of venom than I currently feel towards Abe, both leaders have a strength of character, born out of a fundamental belief that they are doing the right thing, which deserves respect and a certain degree of admiration.

From my own perspective, things also seem set to get more interesting in English education too. As a prelude to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the government has made a concerted push to raise English attainment levels across all levels of society.

The all new English website of Tokyo City

The all new English website of Tokyo City

Photo: Manish Prabhune on Flickr

Of course as any linguist knows, the best time to acquire new language is in childhood. Hence, elementary schools all across Japan are to begin teaching English from the 3rd grade onwards. Presently, English is only offered from 5th grade onwards. Additionally, whilst currently English has no form of official assessment criteria at elementary school at all, from 2016 both 5th and 6th grade students will be formally tested to ensure compliance with the Ministry of Education’s expectations.

Whilst some sceptics may claim that this is nothing more than window dressing, designed to mask fundamental problems in the Japanese education system as a whole, I have to say I don’t share this pessimistic view. Yes, English levels in Japan are embarrassingly low, but any attempt to tackle this problem can and should be applauded.

Japan has faced many challenges in 2015, and will no doubt face many more in the years ahead, but I am confident we will get there. We will endure and we will prosper.

One thing is for sure, for all its ups and downs, life in Japan is never dull!

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