From Covid to Kei Komuro, 2021 was better than 2020 perhaps, but not without its controversies. Here are the key moments that made the headlines in Japan this year.

Arson Attack Kills 25 People

On the morning of December 17, a deadly fire broke out in the Dojima Kita Building in Osaka. Believed to be an arson attack, it occurred in a psychiatric clinic located on the building’s fourth floor. With the only stairway inaccessible due to the flames, 25 people died, all of whom were either patients or staff at the clinic. Three others were injured, including suspect Morio Tanimoto, 61, a former patient. Searching his home, the police found a newspaper with an article about the 2019 Kyoto Animation arson attack in which 36 people were killed. A decade ago, Tanimoto was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after stabbing his son in the head with a kitchen knife.

‘Black Rain’ Victims Recognized as Atomic Bomb Survivors

When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, the city was showered with radioactive black rain. Exposed citizens within a defined zone received government support. Those outside the zone didn’t, even though many had health issues as a result of the rain. After years of campaigning, 84 plaintiffs were finally recognized as hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) by the Hiroshima High Court this summer, entitling them to state health care benefits. This October, 189 ‘Black Rain’ survivors not involved in the case applied for government relief.

Controversies Plague Olympics

The buildup to the Olympics wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. In addition to growing calls for it to be canceled, there was also an abundance of controversy. In February, Yoshiro Mori was forced to quit as head of the Japanese Olympic Committee after saying women talked too much in meetings. A month later, creative chief Hiroshi Sasaki resigned following his comment about plus-size comedian Naomi Watanabe being a potential “Olympig” mascot. Then, a week before the Games, composer Keigo Oyamada pulled out of the opening ceremony following revelations about his bullying past.

Death of Sri Lankan Woman Shocks Japan

Wishma Sandamali went to the police in 2020 to report domestic abuse. She was then forced to stay at a Nagoya detention facility as her visa had expired. That was where she died in March of this year. Despite complaining about stomach pains, she was refused release for hospital treatment as immigration authorities felt she was exaggerating. Video footage of the two weeks leading to her death (edited down to two hours) was shown to her family. Her sister Poornima said she’d been “treated like a dog.”

Evangelion Tops Japan Box Office

Japan’s highest grossing film of 2021, to date, is Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time. Originally released in March with an updated version in June, it surpassed ¥10 billion at the box office in July. The animated science-fiction flick is the fourth and final film of the Rebuild of Evangelion series. Directed and written by Hideaki Anno, it’s his highest grossing film to date, surpassing the 2016 kaiju movie Shin Godzilla. Kimetsu no Yaiba was the only film to exceed ¥10 billion in 2020.

French Father Goes on Hunger Strike Near Tokyo Olympic Stadium

Vincent Fichot hasn’t seen his children since August 10, 2018. Having exhausted all avenues trying to gain access, the Frenchman decided to go on hunger strike near the Olympic Stadium two weeks before the start of the Games. Losing around 14kg, he fractured his finger in a fall which required surgery. That put an end to his public protest after three weeks, but he continues to lobby for change. Joint custody of children in cases of divorce or separation does not legally exist in Japan. In November, a court in Paris issued an arrest warrant for his wife.

General Election Win for LDP

Japan’s ruling party secured an absolute stable majority in the first Lower House election of the Reiwa Era. Though falling short of the 276 seats it held previously, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 261 of the 465 seats. Its coalition partner Komeito, meanwhile, secured 32 seats, three more than the last election. The Constitutional Democratic Party retained its position as the largest opposition despite losing 13 seats. The biggest climber was the right-wing populist party Nippon Ishin no Kai (the Japan Innovation Party) which tripled its share.

Hideki Matsuyama Makes History with Masters Win

TBS commentators Tommy Nakajima and Wataru Ogasawara could hardly contain their emotions as Hideki Matsuyama stroked home an eagle on the 18th to secure the Masters. Nakajima finished in the top ten at six Majors, but never reached the summit. In fact, no Japanese or Asian male player had until Matsuyama this spring. The Ehime Prefecture-native finished a stroke ahead of American rookie Will Zalatoris to claim the famous green jacket. His caddie, Shota Hayafuji, famously bowed to Augusta National following his final shot.

Identical Twins Break World Record

Japanese sisters Umeno Sumiyama and Koume Kodama were, this year, certified as the world’s oldest ever identical twins. The 107-year-olds surpassed the previous record held by compatriots Kin Narita and Gin Kanie. The celebrity siblings, affectionately known as Kin San Gin San, were 107 years and 175 days old when the former died in 2000. Sumiyama and Kodama overtook that number in spring and received their Guinness World Record certificates in September. They turned 108 on November 5.

Japan’s Covid-19 Cases Plummet After Record-Breaking Summer

With the state of emergency constantly being extended, it was difficult to see a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. Despite restrictions on dining out, numbers just kept rising. In August, Tokyo reported over 125,600 new cases, almost triple the number for July. By September, though, the increased vaccination rate had a considerable impact on infection rates. For 15 days straight Japan’s capital recorded under 1,000 cases. From October onwards it has regularly below 100.

Kei Komuro Finally Marries his Princess

As royal weddings go, it was about as low-key as you could get. After a four-year engagement packed full of controversy, Princess Mako and Kei Komuro finally tied the knot this autumn. There was no elaborate ceremony or traditional rites as the couple simply submitted their registration at a local ward office. The reason for the subdued affair? A money scandal involving Komuro’s mother that cast a long shadow over their relationship. The media onslaught the pair faced was compared to that of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Komuro’s ponytail, in particular, caused quite a stir.

LDP Elect Kishida as New Prime Minister

Following Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s shock resignation in September, four people put their names in the hat to succeed him as PM. Female candidates Sanae Takashi and Seiko Noda were the outsiders, while vaccination czar Taro Kono was the public’s choice. In the end, though, it was the safer option of Fumio Kishida who won the ballot. He defeated Kono by 257 votes to 170 in a second-round runoff. The sake-loving, Hiroshima Carp fan was sworn in as the country’s leader on October 4.

Man Arrested for Defrauding 35 Girlfriends

Takashi Miyagawa was determined to get as many birthday presents as possible. He told one “girlfriend” his big day was in February while two others were given dates in April and July. It’s actually on November 13. The serial dater reportedly struck up romantic relationships with almost three dozen women, convincing them he was interested in long-term commitment. Eventually several of his dates realized something was amiss. They formed a victims’ association and went to the police. Miyagawa was arrested for fraud.

Naomi Osaka Shines Spotlight on Mental Health in Sport

It’s been a mixed year for tennis star Naomi Osaka. In February she claimed her fourth Grand Slam title, defeating America’s Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final. Four months later, she withdrew from the French Open after being fined for skipping media obligations. Revealing she suffered from “long bouts of depression,” she decided to take some time away from tennis. The final torchbearer at the Tokyo 2020 Games, she then lost in the third round at both the Olympics and the US Open.

Olympics: Golds Galore for Team Japan

Despite the lack of crowds, Japan benefited from home advantage at the Olympics with a record 27 golds. Highlights included surprise wins for the men’s fencing épée team and mixed doubles table tennis pair Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani. There were also triumphs for the baseball and softball teams as well as Karateka Ryo Kiyuna and boxer Sena Irie. Swimmer Yui Ohashi and gymnast Daiki Hashimoto both topped the podium twice while the host nation amassed an impressive 17 golds in judo, wrestling and skateboarding.

Paralympics: Big Improvement on Last Three Games

It wasn’t quite the gold rush of the Olympics, but Japan still enjoyed a successful Paralympics with 13 triumphs: three more than the Beijing, London and Rio Games combined. Tennis player Shingo Kunieda was the most high-profile winner, claiming his fourth Paralympic title. 50-year-old cyclist Keiko Sugiura won two golds, becoming Japan’s oldest-ever Paralympic champion. Tomoki Sato also bagged a brace of golds on the track, as did Sarina Satomi in badminton. There were also victories in the pool and in boccia.

Quad Leaders Meet In-Person for First Time

In September, Yoshihide Suga flew to Washington in what was his last trip abroad as prime minister. He was there to attend the first-ever in-person summit of the so-called Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) group. A strategic dialog composed of representatives from India, the US, Japan and Australia, it was originally set up by Shinzo Abe in 2007. The objective of the group is obvious: to prevent China from becoming Asia’s hegemon. The group, though, is careful to avoid mentioning China in any of its statements.

Radioactive Water to be Released Into the Sea

In April, Japan approved a plan to release more than one million tons of contaminated water from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea. While the filtration process has removed most of the radioactive elements from the water, some still remain, including tritium. According to experts, this is not dangerous in small amounts. However, the decision to dump the water has still angered local fishermen and neighboring countries. It will be released via an undersea tunnel, possibly beginning in the spring of 2023.

Super Shohei Steals the Show

Despite his side failing to make the playoffs, Shohei Ohtani was unquestionably the standout player in Major League Baseball this year. Referred to as the Japanese Babe Ruth, the two-way star hit 46 homers, 103 runs, 100 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. Remarkable numbers for any batter. Then, there are his stats on the mound. He compiled a 3.18 ERA with 156 strikeouts and 44 walks in 130 1/3 innings. No wonder some have described it as the greatest individual season in MLB history. In November, he was named as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

Train Attack on Halloween Wreaks Havoc

A man dressed in Batman’s Joker costume was arrested for attacking people on a train on Halloween night. He reportedly told the police he “wanted to kill people and be given the death penalty.” According to witnesses the 24-year-old assailant stabbed a man in his 70s before setting the carriage alight. Video footage showed commuters running to escape as smoke filled the train. 17 were injured in the rampage. Earlier in the year, ten people were hurt on the Odakyu Line by a man who wanted “to kill happy looking couples and women.”

Unprecedented Rainfall Batters the South Coast of Japan

Around 1.8 million residents were urged to evacuate their homes as torrential rains lashed Japan’s southwestern tip in the summer. The downpours triggered landslides and floods as several riverbanks burst. Some areas experienced more than three times the average amount of rainfall for August in less than a week. A month earlier, the coastal town of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture received 310 millimeters of rain in a 48-hour period. It led to a deadly landslide that killed 26 with one person still missing.

Vaccination Drive Speeds Up After Slow Start

It began at a snail’s pace. Japan started vaccinating its frontline workers in mid-February, well behind countries in Europe and North America. It was another two months before those aged 65 and over received the jab. By the start of June, with the Olympics a month and a half away, just three percent of the population had been inoculated. Then everything changed. Around a million doses were administered daily throughout the summer. Currently more than 75 percent of the country’s population has received two shots. Booster jabs for medical workers began in December.

Widow of Japanese “Don Juan” Indicted

In April, 25-year-old Saki Sudo was arrested for the murder of her wealthy husband Kosuke Nozaki who penned an autobiography titled Don Juan of Kishu: The Man Who Gave ¥3 Billion to 4,000 Beautiful Women in 2016. Two years later he died after ingesting a lethal amount of an illegal stimulant. Ruling out suicide, the police indicted his wife of three months based on circumstantial evidence. She had allegedly searched how to make a murder look like an illness on her smartphone and was in the same location as a stimulant dealer prior to Nozaki’s death.

X Japan’s Yoshiki Wins Medal of Honor

Yoshiki is known for more than just his music. The X Japan front man is also a philanthropist who established the public benefit corporation Yoshiki Foundation America in 2010. Since then, the organization has donated millions to various humanitarian causes across the globe. In March, the man described by Consequence of Sound as “one of the most influential composers in Japanese history,” was awarded the prestigious dark blue ribbon, given to individuals who’ve made exceptionally generous financial contributions to the well-being of the public.

Yakuza Boss Sentenced to Death

“I asked you for a fair judgment. But this is not fair at all. You will regret this for the rest of your life.” These were the words of Satoru Nomura as he became the first senior yakuza boss to be sentenced to death. The leader of the Kudo-kai gang based in Kitakyushu was accused of conspiring to carry out four attacks including the murder of a former fishing cooperative. Fukuoka Prefectural Police ordered officers to protect judges and witnesses related to the case.

Zozotown Founder Invites Eight People to Join Him on Mars Mission

In March, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa posted a message on Twitter calling on eight people from “all kinds of backgrounds,” to join him on a trip around the moon on Elon Musk’s SpaceX flight. He said he was open to anyone with the goal of helping “other people and greater society in some way,” joining him on the spacecraft in 2023. Maezawa will cover all costs. He also rocketed to space this December. The 12-day voyage was documented on his YouTube channel.

Feature image by Anna Petek

This article was published in Tokyo Weekender’s Nov-Dec 2021 magazine. Flip through the issue by clicking on the image below.