TOPTokyo LifeJapan Back Then: The Stories That Gripped the Nation in the 2010s

Japan Back Then: The Stories That Gripped the Nation in the 2010s

We conclude our series looking back at the last 50 years of news in Japan with the 2010s, a decade that will be most remembered for the tragedy that occurred on March 11, 2011

By Matthew Hernon

The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

At 2:46 pm on that day a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan triggering a massive tsunami. The largest quake to occur in Japan since records began in 1900, it knocked the earth six and half inches off its axis, led to seiches as far away as the Norwegian Fjords and caused large chunks of ice to break off from part of Antarctica. In Japan it obliterated towns, forced half a million out of their homes and tragically killed around 18,500 people (though other estimates give a final death toll over 20,000). One of the most harrowing stories of the disaster was at Okawa Elementary School where 74 students and 10 teachers passed away.

The Nuclear Fallout

As if the loss of lives and homes wasn’t enough, the earthquake and tsunami also caused the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl Disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Reactors 1-4 at the plant proved robust seismically but were vulnerable to the tsunami that swept over the seawall and flooded them. This catalyzed a triple nuclear meltdown, three hydrogen explosions and the release of radioactive contaminants. The desperate situation would have been much worse had it not been for the courageous plant employees (dubbed the “Fukushima 50”, though the real number ran into the hundreds) who risked their lives to try to stabilize the reactors after everyone had been evacuated.

Nadeshiko Lift Spirits

2011 was a difficult year for Japanese citizens, but in the summer they had something to cheer for as the women’s football team became the first Asian side to lift the World Cup. After seeing off the hosts Germany and then Sweden in the knockout stages, they met USA in the final, a team they’d failed to beat in their previous 25 encounters. Goals from Aya Miyama and inspirational skipper Homare Sawa meant the game finished 2-2 after extra time. Ayumi Kaihori then saved two spot kicks while Carli Lloyd blazed her effort over the bar before Saki Kumagai smashed home the winning penalty for Nadeshiko. America hasn’t lost a World Cup match since.

Stem Cell Scandal

In January 2014 Haruko Obokata became a national hero after posting two articles in the science journal Nature that appeared to demonstrate a simple way of turning ordinary body cells into something like embryonic stem cells by dipping them in acid for a 30-minute shock period. Supported by research institute Riken, her stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) technique did away with genetic modifications, supposedly simplifying a process developed by Nobel prize-winner Shinya Yamanaka eight years earlier (he converted adult cells into iPS cells by introducing four specific genes into them). Unfortunately, the adulation didn’t last long. Irregularities were found in the data and scientists couldn’t repeat her findings. Her articles were retracted, and Riken concluded she had “falsified and fabricated data.”

Hakamada Released After 46 Years on Death Row

Sentenced to death in 1968 for killing four people, Iwao Hakamada was released on March 27, 2014, three years after entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest-held death row inmate. The former boxer was reportedly questioned for 264 hours in 23 days while being denied water and toilet breaks. He told his sister that one interrogator put his thumb onto an ink pad to force him to write a confession while kicking him and wrenching his arm. DNA tests revealed the blood stains allegedly found on the clothes of the killer didn’t match Hakamada. The Shizuoka District Court subsequently granted him a retrial and let him go.

Hysterical Politician Sobs Uncontrollably

A relatively unknown prefectural assemblyman became an Internet sensation in 2016 when he wailed and sobbed after being asked about allegations concerning his profligate use of public money for personal travel. According to media reports, Ryutaro Nonomura spent around three million yen on 195 trips to four locations, including one hot spring resort he allegedly visited 106 times. His melodramatic, rambling apology, during which he banged his fists on the desk and uttered nonsensical phrases as tears poured down his cheeks, went viral with one posting of the video garnering more than 2 million hits. “I just wanted to change the world,” he said. “You just don’t understand, do you?”

The Sagamihara Massacre

In the early hours of July 26, 2016 Satoshi Uematsu drove to Tsukui Yamayuri En, a care home for disabled people in Sagamihara where he used to work, armed with several knives. Entering with a hammer, he tied up a staff member, took their keys and started attacking residents while they slept. The abhorrent act ended the lives of 19 people and injured 26. Inspired by Nazi eugenics, Uematsu wrote a letter to parliament five months earlier saying he could eliminate hundreds of people with disabilities. He later stated they had no reason to live and should be euthanized. This prompted his forced hospitalization; however, he was released two weeks later as doctors deemed him not to be a threat.

Akihito Declares Historic Abdication

The first monarch to renounce the crown since Emperor Kokaku in 1817, Emperor Akihito made the decision to step down from his duties as the ceremonial figurehead of Japan due to health reasons. A one-off bill was then passed by parliament and on May 1, 2019 Naruhito became the 126th emperor of the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy, a line that dates back to the 5th century. His official enthronement, which took place five months later, was attended by state leaders and monarchs from more than 180 countries, regions and organizations. Guests included King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, Britain’s Prince Charles and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

KyoAni Arson Attack

A famous animation studio known for series such as K-On! and Clannad was set on fire in 2019 by a man said to have had a grudge against the company, accusing them of plagiarizing his work. According to eyewitness accounts Shinji Aoba, 42, approached the studio of Kyoto Animation (often abbreviated KyoAni) with 40 liters of gasoline that he spread around the first floor of the building (and on some individuals) before setting it alight. Of the 70 people inside, 36 died. The perpetrator then set himself on fire and tried to flee but was chased down by two employees before being apprehended by the police. Donations for survivors of the attack topped 3.3 billion yen.

The Greatest Rugby World Cup

In 2015 Japan caused one of the biggest upsets in sporting history, defeating the Springboks 34-32 in Brighton. Four years later, they became the first Asian country to host a Rugby World Cup, beginning it with a nervy victory over Russia. The Brave Blossoms then produced another major World Cup shock, beating the second seeded team Ireland 19-12. The most memorable win came against Scotland in the deciding group game, 24 hours after the country had been ravaged by Typhoon Hagibis. They were knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual winners South Africa who went on to destroy England in the final. “Japan 2019 will be remembered as probably the greatest Rugby World Cup,” said chairman Sir Bill Beaumont.