The late 20th and early 21st century have been characterized by relative instability in Japan’s economic and political systems, shifting demographics and social norms, devastating natural disasters, and an overall sense of anxiety about Japan’s direction.
Heisei Period (1989–Present)
This period coincides with the imperial Heisei period, which began when Akihito ascended the throne in 1990, following the death of his father, Hirohito (the Showa emperor) in 1989. Akihito’s enthronement ceremony was held in Tokyo instead of Kyoto, the traditional location, and was the first enthronement ceremony to be televised.
Hirohito’s passing prompted controversy to emerge over his role in World War II. Internationally and domestically, Japan’s role in the war and the appropriate response to its victims have been polarizing issues throughout this period. In Tokyo, the Yasukuni Shrine to the souls of those who died in service to the Empire of Japan, including war criminals, has been a flashpoint for controversy, as when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited in 2005.
In the 21st century, Tokyo has also grown in population and completed several major architectural and infrastructural developments, most notably the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (1991), the Rainbow Bridge (1993), Roppongi Hills (2003), the Tokyo Midtown skyscraper (2007), and the Tokyo Skytree (2011), as well as three subway or rail lines. Tokyo has distinguished itself as one of the most vibrant cultural hubs, and one of the most bustling metropoles in the world. Tokyo has become famed as a foodie city with the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Right in the middle of the city is Tsukiji fish market, the biggest fish market in the world. Furthermore, with the Japanese mindset of “continuous improvement,” Tokyo stands as an example of some of the most impressive urban infrastructure renewal projects.
After the bubble economy of the 1980s burst, a period of two decades of economic stagnation, characterized by price deflation and a stagnant GDP, bad debts, and fiscal restructuring ensued. Between 1995 and 2007, Japan’s GDP fell from $5.33 to $4.36 trillion, and from 1995 to 2013, real wages fell by about 13 percent. Output per capita also fell and Japan’s fiscal deficit grew rapidly, reaching the highest debt level in the world (240 percent of GDP).
Despite this, the “Lost Decade” is not considered an economic depression. Much of Japan’s losses during this period are relative to extreme economic strength and unusually high levels of economic growth in the previous period. For example, although Japan’s GDP grew at half the rate of that of the United States between 2001 and 2010, its GDP growth per capita was better than either the United States or Europe. And although Japan’s unemployment rate rose in the first decade of this century, it remained at half that of the United States or Europe. Furthermore, a closer look at Japan’s GDP growth shows that GDP growth over the “Lost Decade” actually followed a pattern of growth, punctuated by sharp declines that coincided with broader international crises.
The nature of employment in Japan has nonetheless changed dramatically. The typical narrative of the period between 2000 and 2007 is that unemployment rose and temporary and non-regular labor increasingly replaced lifetime employment; these exact figures also deserve a closer examination. Although growth rate was slow, the number of employed people in Japan actually increased throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and although the number of regular employees dropped, the rise of non-regular employees did not become a majority in the workplace. The shift in composition of the workforce is also indicative of the rise of a new industry that barely existed before—the temporary labor, or dispatch worker agencies, that worked with large companies to supply short-term employees, and the flexible deployment of temporary workers. Japanese companies have traditionally been characterized by lifetime employment with promotions being based on age and seniority. This decade has brought about greater flexibility in employment in the younger generations, as well as a more merit-oriented system. These shifts bring with them more potential upheaval and uncertainty for workers. However, they also have the potential to provide valuable economic stimulus and greater innovation in Japanese companies.
Recent decades have also been relatively unsettled politically. There were 16 different prime ministers between 1989 and 2012. Although the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) retains its parliamentary majority today and therefore the office of prime minister, its hold on power was broken in 1993, for the first time since 1955. In the wake of the financial crisis and political scandal, the Japan New Party, a coalition of opposition parties, won the majority that year. The Japan Renewal Party and Japan Socialist Party won subsequent elections until the LDP regained control in 1996.
In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan won the majority in the wake of another financial crisis, and held power for three years, with three different prime ministers. Since 2012, Shinzo Abe (LDP) has been prime minister, returning to the office after a one-year term in 2006–2007, and thus represents the longest stability in leadership since the 1980s.
Meanwhile, Japan has struggled to maintain its former dominance in technology industries, as the fields of innovation globally have shifted away from Japan’s strengths in manufacturing and managing complex systems to more software-oriented inventions. While U.S. and South Korean firms, among others, have excelled at information technology, Japanese firms have not successfully reoriented and have failed to compete with consumer product markets such as smartphones and tablets, globally and domestically.
Japanese society also experienced changes during this period of instability, some inspiring widespread anxiety about where the country was headed.
Demographically, Japan is rapidly aging. Through a combination of high life expectancy and low birthrate, Japan now has a larger percentage of elderly citizens than any other country. As of 2014, 33 percent of the population was over the age of 60. An aging population puts pressure on social services, which are funded by a shrinking labor force. Japan’s total population began to decline in 2011, and these trends are expected to continue, unless there is a dramatic change in fertility rates.
Although the immigrant population in Japan remains small, in the past few years the Japanese government has increased the number of international students, many of whom have stayed in Japan to work. Although there remains some political and social resistance to making Japan more multiethnic, attitudes seem to be slowly changing. The increasing visibility of bi/multiracial families, the international schools dotted across Tokyo, and the recent news of not one, but two biracial Miss Japans, are indicative of a shift.
Greater Tokyo alone has seen overall population growth, mostly due to internal migration. In 1997, in-migration exceeded out-migration for the first time in over a decade. The city’s population exceeded 13 million in 2010, but is projected to decline after peaking in 2020.
The so-called “new-new religions” (as opposed to the “new religions” of the postwar period) began to emerge in the 1990s; these groups seemed to reject the modern state. Although these were primarily fringe movements, involving very few people, one such group made a dramatic impact on Tokyo and the nation. On March 20, 1995, a cult movement called Aum Shinrikyo launched a terrorist attack on the Tokyo Metro. Sarin gas, a nerve agent, was simultaneously released into five different trains on three different rail lines in a coordinated attack, leaving 13 dead, 54 seriously injured, and 980 affected. It was the deadliest incident in Japan since World War II. Many of the victims still suffer from vision problems and fatigue today.
During this period, Japan experienced two major national disasters. The first was a 6.9-magnitude earthquake centered just off the coast of the city of Kobe on January 17, 1995. The worst earthquake in Japan since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Tokyo, it killed 6,434 people and irreparably damaged nearly 400,000 buildings. Because of the perception that building codes and emergency response services had been inadequate, the Kobe earthquake became a national wake-up call for disaster prevention.
On March 11, 2011, another disaster occurred. First, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan’s history, struck off the northeastern coast of Japan. An hour later, a massive tsunami struck. In the days immediately following, three nuclear meltdowns occurred at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant as a result of the tsunami, becoming the world’s second largest nuclear disaster ever, after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Nearly 16,000 lives were lost, over 6,000 injured, and over 2,500 missing. The World Bank estimates the total cost of this triple disaster at US$234 billion, the costliest natural disaster in history.
Seismologists had expected a very large quake to recur southwest of Tokyo, in the same place as the 1923 earthquake, and thus were taken by surprise by the location of the 2011 earthquake. Nonetheless, early warning and safety systems in place for both earthquake and tsunami saved many lives and serves as a model for other Pacific Rim countries.
Although the devastating destruction and loss of life occurred in the northeastern Tohoku region, the entire country was affected. The earthquake itself was strongly felt even in Tokyo, 373 km (232 mi) from the epicenter, and caused some damage especially in areas built on landfill. However, Tokyo’s earthquake-resistant infrastructure and architecture prevented major damage.
Like the rest of the country, Tokyo also suffered from severe shortages of electricity in the short term, as well as the immediate and automatic shutdown of the railways. In the longer term, disruption of Japan’s complex manufacturing systems impacted its economy, but still, only temporarily. Following the nuclear plant disaster, radioactive hotspots were found outside the immediate environs, including Tokyo. Food supplies were also disrupted, as radioactive contamination was discovered in some food products, even years later.
As was the case for both the 1995 and 2011 earthquakes, the massive mobilization of volunteers in the relief efforts inspired the growth of organized charity and non-profit organizations, facilitated by new state policies.