The stubbornly stagnant economy and a shrinking population (projected to decline by one-third in the next half-century) have been a near constant backdrop for political discussion in Japan for decades. Was the post-WWII miracle growth a fluke, or could Japan pull it off again – ideally in time for the 2020 Olympics? There have been glimmers of hope on the economic front, but no one is popping champagne. Meanwhile, the 2011 earthquake has had the unexpected legacy of increased civic engagement.

The Olympics (and the Ever-Growing Olympic Budget)

When the International Olympic Committee announced in 2013 that Tokyo would host the 2020 Summer Olympics, it felt like the first good news Japan had heard in ages. Now the media could talk about fun things again – like new stadium designs! The enthusiasm didn't last long though: with construction costs for the Zaha Hadid–designed stadium spiralling out of control, the government scrapped it in favour of a cheaper-to-make design by Kuma Kengo. While many locals disliked the Hadid stadium – saying it looked like a giant bicycle helmet – nobody is terribly excited about Kuma's either (which has been compared to a hamburger). With costs still snowballing, firm-fisted Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko has sent more plans back to the discussion table – and possibly the chopping block.

On a darker note, victims of the 2011 earthquake, who lost homes (and even whole communities) in the tsunami or to radiation have grown increasingly resentful, still living in temporary housing while public funds are spent on showpiece projects. Statistics from the Reconstruction Bureau report that as of 2016, there were still more than 100,000 (the majority of whom are from Fukushima) who are still living in temporary housing.

The Nuclear Power Dilemma

More than five years after the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, nuclear power is still a hot topic. Before 2011, 30% of Japan's power was nuclear; by 2013, due to a combination of scheduled maintenance and revamped safety inspections, all reactors were offline. Carbon emissions rose 14% as Japan resorted to burning more oil. The government wants Japan back on the nuclear grid; in 2015, two reactors in Kyūshū went live, with more scheduled to follow.

Citizens and local governments, however, have been unusually proactive, some taking legal action to prevent nearby reactors from restarting in a David vs Goliath scenario that pits them against the central government and the national nuclear regulating body. Local residents in Fukui Prefecture petitioned (and succeeded in court) to keep their reactors offline, while Niigata Prefecture elected a governor running as an independent purely on a no-nukes platform in 2016.

Article 9

Article 9 of Japan's post-WWII constitution prohibits Japan from using military force in international conflict; however, the country maintains a Self Defense Force (SDF) that participates in UN peacekeeping missions abroad. In 2014 the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition government decided to reinterpret Article 9 to allow the SDF (a force of about 200,000) to come to the aid of allies.

In 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet approved the use of weapons in situations not limited to self-defence for soldiers participating in a mission in Sudan. This has led some to ask: could this escalate into Japan getting more involved in international armed conflicts?

Abe has suggested that his ultimate aim is to amend the constitution; however, a majority of the public is against a change; 2016 polls from Japan's leading newspaper show more than half the population to be against constitutional revision. The country's seniors – typically supporters of the LDP, but for whom memories of WWII and its aftermath remain potent – are particularly opposed; retirees have been hitting the streets for regular (and peaceful) protests for the first time in decades.

The Tourists Are Here!

Japan has long hoped to boost its underdeveloped inbound tourism industry. Then, it got real, by relaxing visa regulations for visitors from its Asian neighbours, which, along with the periodically weak yen, has resulted in a dramatic uptick of foreign visitors. Inbound numbers have more than doubled since 2010; in 2015 the country logged 19.7 million visitors, just shy of the 20 million target set for 2020.

There is hand-wringing, of course: How do we please them? Where are we going to park all these tour buses? And will we ever be able to visit Kyoto in peace again?

But there is also intense fascination: What, exactly, do they find interesting about Japan? There has been an explosion of TV shows trying to figure that out, interviewing tourists (even sending TV personalities to check out places listed in the Lonely Planet guide). The popular show, 'You! ha nani shini nihon e?' ('Why did you come to Japan?') sends cameras to Narita Airport to look for interesting subjects and then follows them around (you've been warned!).

After decades of stagnation-bred doldrums, Japan is looking to the outside world for a pick-me-up: if people are willing to spend money to come here, it can't be so bad, right?