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On Jan. 14, when Morihiro Hosokawa, a 76-year-old former prime-minister-turned-potter, announced his candidacy for governor of Tokyo, another former head of government was there to hold his hand. Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s charismatic prime minister from 2001 to 2006, famous for his wavy silver hair — and, more recently, his anti-nuclear activism — had convinced Hosokawa to run.
Hosokawa’s single-issue platform was simple: no more nuclear power for the capital or for the country as a whole.
As Tokyo prepares to elect its next governor on Feb. 9 — a vote occasioned by a resignation mired in corruption — more than local politics is at stake. The race has become something of a referendum on key national policies, including nuclear power, social services for a ballooning senior population and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attack on Japan’s post–World War II “peace constitution.” There are four main candidates: Hosokawa; progressive human-rights lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya; former Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Yoichi Masuzoe, Abe’s preferred man and, until last week, the clear leader in most opinion polls; and Toshio Tamogami, the ultra-nationalistic hawk who once led the Japanese air force.
Before Hosokawa came along, Utsunomiya had billed himself as an anti-nuclear candidate and criticized Abe for his executive overreach. But by choosing to run himself instead of endorsing Utsunomiya, Hosokawa — and his high-profile backer Koizumi, Abe’s old mentor and a convert to the anti-nuclear gospel — has positioned himself on the left wing of energy policy and pointedly challenged the prime minister.
Before 3/11 — the March 3, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant — nearly a quarter of Japan’s electric supply came from nuclear energy. Now with all 50 reactors nationwide shut down over safety concerns, the country has relied on a combination of increased fossil-fuel imports, wind and other renewable sources and strict conservation.
Densely populated Tokyo, nearly 200 miles south of Fukushima but home to some 8,000 relocated earthquake victims, consumes about 10 percent of Japan’s electricity. And the city government holds a 1.2 percent share in the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the nominal owner of Fukushima Daiichi.
An anti-nuclear Tokyo governor, while lacking a controlling stake in TEPCO, could join other shareholders to oppose restarting the nuclear power plants. In theory, the city could also change its energy supplier from TEPCO to another utility.
So far, nuclear worries lag behind economic concerns for most Tokyo voters. A Yomiuri Shimbum poll in late January found that 84 percent of respondents listed medical and welfare policies as a top election issue, followed by disaster preparedness and unemployment; 61 percent cited nuclear power. Now that Abe’s government panel has vowed to recommend expanding the scope of self-defense forces under the peace constitution, militarization may also figure into the Tokyo vote, to the extent Masuzoe is associated with Abe.
The unemployment rate of more than 4 percent is low by international standards but a source of anxiety in Japan, which, after years of stagnation, is pursuing an expansionary “Abenomics” strategy. Stock values and corporate profits have increased, as have consumer prices. Meanwhile, more than 23 percent of Japan’s population is 65 or older — the world’s highest concentration of seniors — presenting enormous social and financial challenges well into the next century.
These diverse social concerns each relate, in a certain sense, to the nuclear conundrum: Economic growth depends on energy supplies; conservative politicians have discussed the possibility of developing nuclear weapons; and rural elders continue to suffer disproportionate after-effects of 3/11. “In some temporary (evacuee) communities, the population of older persons is as high as 60 percent,” said Chattip Solarump of HelpAge Asia. (Some 140,000 Japanese still live in short-term housing.)
Tokyo’s gubernatorial candidates are paying attention. In a Feb. 1 debate, despite the country’s myriad issues, three of the four top contenders — including Masuzoe — made a point of opposing nuclear energy at least in the long term, though specific alternatives remain elusive.
With so many candidates making anti-nuclear vows, advocates who had hoped for a unified endorsement worry about splitting their votes. “We had asked the (anti-nuclear) candidates to consolidate, but unfortunately that was rejected,” said Hajime Matsukubo, international liaison for the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.
“Now we hope that any anti-nukes candidate will win the election.”