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Antinuke stance within establishment slowly gathers steam

by Philip Brasor

In May, Wakamono Manifest Sakutei Iinkai, a policy research group dedicated to issues relevant to people under 40, posted results of a survey in which members were asked who they wanted to lead Japan. There was no consensus, but the individual who received the most votes was Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono, followed by Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto and “no one.”

Kono, the son of former foreign minister Yohei Kono, is often referred to as an LDP heretic because of his opposition to Japan’s nuclear energy policy, which predated the March 11 disaster. In a recent interview with Reuters, he said he would form an alliance with like-minded politicians in both the LDP and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to change the country’s energy policy, though the LDP leadership seems determined to keep a lid on him. He was one of only two lower house LDP lawmakers who voted in favor of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s request for a 70-day extension of the current Diet session and as a result was denied the ¥1 million summertime bonus LDP Diet members receive. “That’s the equivalent of half my annual operating expenses,” he told reporters ruefully.

Though his pedigree guarantees him a certain degree of exposure, Kono’s views were never taken seriously by the media, which isn’t to say they were extreme. Kono is a fiscal and social conservative. He is also cocky and ambitious, which is why he hasn’t quit the LDP. He wants to become prime minister, an office his father never achieved despite having once been president of the party, and believes the LDP is his best chance at achieving that goal. Since March 11 he’s finally gotten the attention he always felt he deserved.

Last week, during an interview on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station,” Kono described the structure propping up the nuclear industry’s “safety myth.” Regional power monopolies contributed money to the LDP, while national labor unions, which tended to be dominated by the unions attached to power companies, boosted the DPJ, many of whose members started their political careers in labor unions. Moreover, the bureaucracy was always contributing retired personnel to the executive ranks of the electrical utilities, which kept the media and academia in line by, respectively, spending big on advertising and funding university programs.

He explained what Japan should do to “phase out nuclear energy,” something you weren’t likely to have heard on a major TV network prior to March 11. “No one in the LDP paid attention to me,” he said about his antinuke stance, but after the quake, “the promoters of nuclear energy in the party just stopped talking. The LDP finally caught up to me.”

Such a statement sounds arrogant, but in fact the LDP’s general mindset has become more aligned with Kono’s. Ostensibly, the reason Kan is hanging on to the premiership so tenaciously is to pass a bill that calls for greater reliance on renewable energy. Because the media is more interested in political gamesmanship than in policy, they have mostly ignored the fact that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has had more to do with the promulgation of nuclear power than any other government body, actually wrote the bill. And since METI is still seen as a creature of the LDP, it follows that the LDP will not reject the bill out of hand. The LDP simply doesn’t like the idea that Kan is the person championing it.

The only obstacle to a future in which power companies are required to buy renewable energy at a fixed price in order to encourage more of it — the gist of the bill — is big business. On May 27, another opinion-maker, Rakuten President and Chairman Hiroshi Mikitani, left Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, which he believes has sat on its hands since March 11 hoping that the whole nuclear mess would just go away and things would return to the way they were. As a successful entrepreneur, Mikitani is often portrayed in the media as the antidote to Livedoor founder and rookie convict Takafumi Horie or SoftBank’s iconoclastic president Masayoshi Son, meaning someone whom the business community accepts as its own.

“I just couldn’t put up with Keidanren’s defense of the electric power industry,” Mikitani tweeted last week. Keidanren’s response to the disaster in Fukushima has been, according to the Rakuten chief, “pointless.” He says the entire power industry needs to be restructured — “separate generation from distribution” — but because of the ties between Keidanren and the utilities, big business continues to support nuclear energy as a national policy, insisting it’s still the cheapest way to make electricity.

But the establishment figure who’s been most strident in his condemnation of Japan’s nuclear policy is the Wakamono Manifest group’s second choice for PM, Hashimoto. In a Twitter rant on June 25, the Osaka governor, while admitting that Japan must address energy assurance, global warming and national security, said he believes his constituents have weighed the risks of nuclear energy and decided they can do without it, even if half the electricity they now consume is nuclear-generated. Citing past electricity usage figures, he calculates that in Osaka there are only eight days in the whole year when energy demand could conceivably outstrip supply; which means “we only need nuclear reactors for those eight days.” So while he agrees that telling businesses to cut back “is out of the question,” Kepco’s demand that he ask his constituents to save at least 15 percent is, to him, extortion.

Hashimoto is as reactionary as they come, though his brand of conservatism is more nationalistic in nature. Nevertheless, the fact that three men whose loyalties nominally lean rightward currently represent the antinuclear contingent in the press is significant. Popular actor Taro Yamamoto was allegedly dropped from a TV drama in May because of his public stand against nukes, but the mainstream media didn’t even mention it. Not ironic enough?