Obeying the literal order of this December’s bonenkai parties — “forget the year” — should be a simple task: Not much really happened in Japan in 2010 to remember.

Sure there was some excitement. China and Japan got pissy with each other about oceanic territorial claims. North Korea, in the midst of a handover of power, got belligerent (nothing really new there). Yukio Hatoyama resigned, paving the way for a new Democratic Party of Japan prime minister, Naoto Kan. Kan fought off DPJ bigwig Ichiro Ozawa to maintain leadership of the party and the country.

But did anyone really care? The overall feeling was one of a stagnant malaise hanging over the country. This came from years of stalled recoveries after the bursting of the 1990s Bubble Economy; the growing psychological weight of Japan’s greying population; the nation’s decreasing international importance, both economically and politically, as China takes center stage; and few identifiable positive developments.

The result has been much hand-wringing by those who remember the country when it was better, but very few solutions. The foreign press didn’t fail to notice, writing story after story on the theme, “What happened to Japan?” Their conclusions? Deflation, unemployment, poverty even, disaffected youth, and, simply, a lack of forceful and imaginative leadership.

This last issue was best reflected in the empty phrases that the former DPJ minister of justice Minoru Yanagida said were all he needed to perform his job: “I do not comment on individual cases” and “We are handling the matter based on the law and evidence.” Yanagida was forced to resign in November for his honesty, but anyone could imagine that many a minister was using some variation on these to get through their day — the big question is whether they are employed out of a lack of desire to communicate the truth, or because these politicians have no idea of what they are actually hoping to accomplish.

Former prime minister Hatoyama fell on his own sword after proving the worst fears of the electorate to be true — the man just wasn’t cut out to be a leader, despite his most idealistic desires to do something good and new for the country. The Japanese can’t tell if Kan has any vision either, but at least he seems engaged with issues that they are concerned with, such as paying down the public debt by, unfortunately, raising the consumption tax and attempting to devalue the yen to help exporters.

Since the charismatic and often unfathomable Junichiro Koizumi left the stage, its been difficult to find anyone who smells of the kind of leadership qualities that Japan needs now to deal with the complicated social and economic issues that the country is facing. NHK suggested Ryoma Sakamoto as a model for the way forward in a recent drama series, playing up the “international orientation” that the quirky Meiji Restoration samurai acquired by living in Nagoya when it was one of the few open ports in the 19th century. While that’s a nice try, with the majority of young Japanese reportedly turning inward — both socially and in terms of their desire to have experiences outside Japan — the fear is that many viewers may have picked up more on the sentimental and nationalistic cues from the show than on Sakamoto’s receptivity to the greater world outside.

Perhaps the lack of action this year is just the quiet before a new storm. The first 10 years of the 21st century were like a squall off Japan’s shores as the world went to hell-in-a-handbasket after the comparatively upbeat and lackadaisical ‘90s overseas. Japan was buffeted by strong winds in the Noughties, but the real damage mostly happened elsewhere. Now, with the strange tensions rising in northeast Asia and the Japanese Baby Boomer generation hitting retirement age, it could be time for the storm to make landfall here.

Of course, the issue could simply be that the country is sailing through unchartered waters. Japan is one of the first developed countries to have to really deal with a population that’s significantly tilting toward the gray side of the scale. Having been one of the first countries in Asia to transform from an agrarian society to a modern capitalist one, it is a frontline laboratory for what could happen in coming years in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and other countries that have followed its road to modernization and success.

But none of this felt palpable inside Japan this year, and was hardly reflected in any exciting — or uplifting — news events. Everything kept on keeping on, nothing really changed, and the year has hardly left a noticeable mark, besides a residue of fear about the future of the country.

Maybe, as regards leadership, you have to hit the bottom before you find the man or woman you need. There are Japanese from the generation below the Baby Boomers that recognize that things can’t continue the way they have and want to strike new paths forward to address new global realities. For now, though, it appears that they will have to wait for those who have held the reigns of power (whether on the LDP or the DPJ side) from the go-get-them ‘60s to the busted ‘90s through the lost Noughties to finally let things they no longer understand go and accept a change of the guard.  — (W)