National / Politics | DECISION 2014

In Fukui, economy, reactors inseparable in election debate

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

For most of Japan, especially its major cities, the issues of how effective Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling coalition’s economic policies have been and whether to restart the nation’s idled nuclear reactors are generally treated by politicians and the media as separate debates.

In Fukui, home to 13 of Japan’s 48 operational reactors, the largest concentration in the nation, the two issues are intimately connected in a prefecture that is one of the most conservative in the country, and one where Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party dominates.

Under a redistricting change, this election marks the first time that the prefecture will have only two single-seat districts, down from three. Six candidates are running for a seat in the two districts.

But two local media polls put the LDP incumbents well ahead of challengers from the Democratic Party of Japan, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) and the Japanese Communist Party.

The Fukui Shimbun and the Nikkan Kenmin Fukui Shimbun predict strong victories for the LDP’s Tomomi Inada, 55, and Tsuyoshi Takagi, 58.A poll by the latter in early December showed 65.3 percent of respondents felt the overall economy was the most important campaign issue. Social welfare was the most important issue for 31.7 percent of the pollees. Twenty-four percent said nuclear power was most important and 20.2 percent said it was local economic revitalization.

Ultra-right LDP policy chief Inada, a close confidante of Abe, is seeking to keep her seat in the first district, which includes the city of Fukui. In the second district, where Fukui’s 13 commercial nuclear reactors and the Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor are located, Takagi is seeking re-election.

Taku Yamamoto, who represented the old Fukui No. 2 district, is standing as an LDP proportional representative candidate. He is the husband of another close, far right-wing Abe friend, internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi.

Those close connections to Abe and the LDP power structure are especially valued in Fukui, which faces particularly difficult social and economic choices in the years ahead. The central government is predicting that the prefecture’s population, currently numbering about 790,000, will drop to 760,000 by 2020 and to only 633,000 by 2040.

“Social welfare policies, economic recovery, and bringing back younger people while taking care of older people are all issues on voters’ minds. Compared to urban areas, however, it’s probable that Fukui will see a higher voter turnout, due to concerns about these issues and the traditional ties that exist between the LDP and Fukui communities,” said Akio Takezawa, a local LDP official. Each year, the prefecture estimates at least 2,000 younger residents leave Fukui for work or school, and in recent years, only about 20 percent of the latter have returned after graduation. Getting more to return has long been recognized as the key to economic recovery, but neither of the front-runners has offered much in the way of detailed strategies to achieve this goal.

Inada has offered only vague proposals to address the issue, urging creation of policies targeting young people that would lure them back to the prefecture in order to work, marry and raise families.

“In order to do this, we need policies to persuade Tokyo-based firms to relocate to Fukui and to bring their workers with them,” she told supporters at a rally in early December.

For his part, Takagi is only slightly more specific.

“For example, one way to get younger people back would be to create public works projects designed to reduce or prevent natural disasters,” he said in a campaign statement, also in early December.

Whoever represents Fukui in the Diet will be expected to push hard for central government approval and financial help to bring the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line to their prefecture as soon as possible. A new route connecting Kanazawa in neighboring Ishikawa Prefecture with Toyama, and then Nagano and Tokyo is expected to open in March. There are plans to extend the line to Tsuruga, in Fukui, by 2025.

But in recent weeks, discussions in the Diet and within Fukui business circles speculate that bullet trains could be running between Tokyo and Tsuruga as early as 2023 if the technical challenges can be overcome and adequate central government funding can be had.

That, in turn, has raised hope in the city of Fukui, which is closer to Kanazawa, that the Fukui-Tokyo section of the shinkansen line might even be ready by 2020, just in time to shuttle Fukui residents to the Tokyo Olympics.

Then there’s nuclear power.

Fukui’s pro-nuclear camp is pushing not merely for the restart of idled reactors, including those that are over 40 years old, but also for a national energy policy that spells out roughly what percentage of Japan’s future electricity supplies should come from atomic power, instead of just accepting the current position that nuclear energy will be an important “base load” source.

Inada, as LDP policy chief, has signaled the Diet will answer this question by spring, although she wouldn’t say if the answer will come before or after nationwide local elections.

Before 3/11, Japan had 54 reactors providing 28.6 percent of the nation’s electricity. But Fukui’s reactors generated just under half of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s electricity in fiscal 2010. Towns in Takagi’s second district in particular have received billions of yen in subsidies for hosting the plants.

There is also the problem of aging reactors. Four of Fukui’s 13 reactors are already 40 years old and another four are more than 35 years old. By 2030, only two reactors, the Oi plant’s units 3 and 4, will be under 40 years.

Official plans still also call for two new Tsuruga reactors originally slated to start operating in 2017 and 2018, but their future is uncertain.

Both Inada and Takagi are facing pressure from Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa and senior prefectural corporate leaders in the pro-nuclear lobby who warn of local economic collapse unless the two candidates and their Diet allies formulate a clear plan of action, including economic assistance from Tokyo, for restarting those reactors that can be restarted and for decommissioning the oldest units.

While voters will be looking to elect candidates they believe will stand the best chance of dealing with these issues in the short term, it’s the longer-term future that has most, regardless of political stance, worried.

“It’s not clear that things are going to get better without fundamental changes, which I don’t think any (one) politician can make,” said Atsuko Kamado, a Fukui housewife who says she hasn’t decided for whom to vote.