OSAKA — Further regional integration and the future of nuclear power in the prefecture with the nation’s largest number of reactors are topping voter concerns in Kansai heading into the April 10 elections.

The Nara and Fukui gubernatorial elections are being closely watched not only in the region but elsewhere for their impact on the national debates on decentralization and the future of nuclear disaster response measures.

The Nara poll is also seen as a political test for Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who has voiced support for an opponent of Nara Gov. Shogo Arai. Hashimoto hopes a win by the challenger will continue to expand his base of political allies outside Osaka Prefecture.

The popular Osaka governor’s political group already has a slight majority in the prefectural assembly, and he is a close supporter of Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, an antitax populist who won a recent recall vote and whose supporters now control the Nagoya Municipal Assembly.

Last year, seven Kansai-area prefectures formed the Kansai Unity Project, which is designed to integrate the bureaucratic functions of the Kansai region and pool their resources.

The project is heavily supported by Hashimoto and the Kansai corporate community, which also sees regional integration as a way to lower corporate taxes and create a more business-friendly environment.

But Arai refused to join, citing the vague nature of the project, the fact that it is not officially sanctioned by the central government, and concerns it would lead to less democracy, less bureaucratic efficiency and less prefectural economic competitiveness.

“There’s no reason to create a new bureaucracy just to promote regionalization. Cooperation between Kansai’s prefectures is something that must be supported, but an entirely new structure with no clear mandate is not something we should join,” Arai told reporters late last week.

Arai, who is being supported by the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, is running against two opponents. His main challenger is Shunji Shiomi, head of the prefectural doctors association who supports joining the Kansai Unity Project.

“The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami have shown the importance of having a wide-ranging medical support network across prefectural borders. This can be achieved here in Kansai by participating in the Kansai Unity Project,” Shiomi said earlier this week.

Polls in Nara Prefecture are mixed. Voters in the northern part, where the city of Nara is situated close to Osaka, tend to be more inclined to join the project. But in the central and southern parts of the prefecture, which are heavily agricultural or mountainous, support is weaker.

In Fukui, home to 14 of Japan’s 54 operational nuclear reactors, the most in any prefecture, the Tohoku quake has forced incumbent Gov. Issei Nishikawa, who has the support of the pronuclear lobby, to reassure voters he will strengthen both disaster response and nuclear safety measures if re-elected.

His opponent, Kunihiro Uno, the Japanese Communist Party candidate, is considered a long shot and hadn’t even set up a website in the days before Thursday’s campaign kicked off.

Fukui voters, heavily reliant on the nuclear power industry and the central government support it brings, appeared more concerned about local response measures for nuclear accidents or natural disasters rather than the wisdom of keeping so many reactors in their backyard. Uno, though said to be antinuclear, concentrated his efforts elsewhere.

“We need to cooperate to assist the victims of the Tohoku quake,” he told supporters Thursday.

Nishikawa has told voters he will push the central government to create stronger nuclear safety standards in the event of an accident and that the central government should study what Fukui has done in this regard.

“Fukui Prefecture’s existing policies in the event of a nuclear accident are actually stronger than the central government’s in some respects. For example, the national standard for evacuating a contaminated area is 10 millisieverts. But the prefectural standard is only 5 millisieverts,” Nishikawa told Tokyo officials last week.

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