Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda,
The Great East Japan Earthquake was a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. While the quake and tsunami did tremendous damage to Tohoku, the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant did even more harm to the country by threatening the health of the population, weakening Japan’s economy, and tarnishing Japan’s reputation as an efficient and safe country.
However, the disaster also represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Japan to reinvent itself.
Looking at the damage wrought by Fukushima No. 1, it is clear that Japan must eliminate nuclear power. Japan has too many earthquakes and tsunamis to operate nuclear plants safely. However, the most important reasons to eliminate nuclear power in Japan are human, not geological. Foremost among these human factors is Japan’s peculiar industrial-bureaucratic partnership.
The following is a brief list of reasons why nuclear power plants cannot be operated safely in Japan.
Amakudari: Japan’s system of amakudari (descent from heaven), in which bureaucrats retire from their ministries to take up lucrative positions in the companies they formerly “regulated,” means that there is no real distinction between regulator and regulated in Japan. Indeed, it’s fair to say that certain powerful industries actually regulate the ministries that are tasked with regulating them. Remember: The retired bureaucrats who have become industry executives remain senpai to the younger bureaucrats who remain in the ministries (their former kōhai). It is unthinkable that these kōhai could effectively regulate their former senpai — for it would involve an inversion of one of the most fundamental relationships in Japanese life.
Perhaps no industry is as rife with amakudari as the nuclear business. Tepco is typical, with four company vice-presidents between 1959 and 2010 coming from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the main ministry tasked with overseeing the nuclear industry.
Capitalist-development state structure: On its face, amakudari seems like a perversion of the proper relationship between ministries and industries, but it’s important to realize that Japan’s ministries were never intended to regulate industry. Rather, they were intended to promote it. This is a form of government known as the “capitalist development state,” in which the state actively fosters the growth of selected industries through a partnership between industry and bureaucracy (ministries).
In August, the NISA was split off from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is tasked with promoting industry (including the nuclear power industry). However, the NISA is still staffed with nuclear-friendly insiders who will be rewarded with lucrative posts in the nuclear industry upon retirement. In short, this is merely a cosmetic change that will not lead to effective regulation of Japan’s nuclear industry.
Campaign cash from the electric power industry: Between 2007 and 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan received at least ¥91 million from electric power plant worker unions. Likewise, in 2009 the Liberal Democratic Party received almost ¥28 million from executives in electric power companies. Given the strong pronuclear bias of Japan’s electric power companies, this effectively guarantees Japanese government support for nuclear power.
Corrupted academics: The Japanese nuclear industry provides generous support to academic institutions and individual professors in order to influence their views on nuclear power. Tokyo University (Todai) has benefited more than any other institution from the nuclear industry’s largess: An astonishing number of Todai professors and administrators leave the university to take up positions at Tepco (a form of academic amakudari), including the former president of Todai, Hiroshi Komiyama, who now holds the position of auditor at Tepco. The result is that the elite of Japan receives an education that is decidedly pronuclear, while research into the dangers of nuclear power is actively discouraged.
All these factors led to the disaster at Fukushima No. 1, and all these factors are still at work in Japan. Thus, it is clear that nuclear power cannot be safely used in Japan. To continue to use this dangerous technology within the context of Japan’s unique political/economic/educational system is to court a disaster even more severe than the one at Fukushima No. 1.
Fortunately, there is no need to continue using nuclear power in Japan. Indeed, Japan is ideally positioned to become the leader in both developing and using alternative energy. Japan is already a leader in solar technology, but the country also has vast untapped hydroelectric resources. There are only two undammed rivers in Japan — if even a fraction of these dams were turned into micro-hydro generating stations, huge areas of the country could be electrified (and tens of thousands of rural workers could be employed in the conversion process). Furthermore, Japan is incredibly rich in geothermal energy. Other potentially rich sources of energy include wind power, tidal power and biomass.
Surely, Japan’s political establishment and power companies will argue that Japan needs nuclear energy to provide energy security, especially in this age of diminishing oil supplies. But how can anyone call nuclear power a form of security when it has rendered a huge area of the country uninhabitable?
But most importantly, when one speaks of security, one must speak of economic security. If Japan sticks to business as usual, a small minority — the ruling class of politicians, power company executives and shareholders — will benefit, but the greater population will suffer. However, if Japan chooses to reinvent itself as the world leader in alternative energy, the entire economy will benefit from new investment and manufacturing. Furthermore, the youth of the country will be energized and the world will look to Japan with renewed respect.
Prime Minister Noda, you have been given a historic opportunity. You can make the Democratic Party of Japan the party of alternative energy technology. You can make Japan the world leader in developing, using and exporting this technology. But it will take real courage on your part: You will have to put aside short-term political gain and personal profit for the good of your country. One thing is certain: If you choose to do this, the people of Japan will rally behind you.
Chris Rowthorn is a freelance writer based in Kyoto. This is a reworked version of an article that originally appeared in Kansai Scene (www.kansaiscene.com). Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to firstname.lastname@example.org