This is the first in a series on the issues related with the upcoming nationwide local elections. Stories will appear occasionally toward the second round of polls April 26.
Situated between Fukuoka to the east and Nagasaki to the west, Saga Prefecture is one of Japan’s most rural, and conservative, localities. It’s the home of world-famous Arita porcelain, nationally famous Saga beef, which is now showing up in Hong Kong, and a major hot-air balloon festival.
Politically, it’s a ruling Liberal Democratic Party stronghold where voter turnout rates are traditionally higher than the national average, as personal obligations and long-standing community ties make it extremely difficult for outside challengers.
But in this month’s local elections, especially for the prefectural assembly, many districts in rural areas lack candidates due to, among other things, a declining population that reduces the pool of potential challengers. This is a nationwide problem that has hit Saga particularly hard.
In addition, the December Lower House election followed by the Saga gubernatorial poll in January created concerns about “election fatigue” that will result in a lower-than-expected turnout in the prefecture.
In six of 13 districts, only the incumbent is running in the prefectural assembly race. In the remaining seven districts, 35 candidates are vying for 25 seats.
For Sunday’s vote, 48 prefectural assembly candidates are running, including 26 LDP incumbents.
Only 12 candidates are competing for the 11 prefectural assembly seats allotted to the city of Saga, and only one candidate, representing the Japanese Communist Party, is female.
However, the paucity of candidates comes at a time when Saga faces issues that have national as well as local political implications.
The first is related to the Genkai nuclear plant in the northern part of the prefecture, where Kyushu Electric Power Co. wants to restart two reactors and formally announced plans last month to decommission one older unit.
The mayor and assembly of Genkai have expressed support for the reactor restarts. But under long-established custom, the utility is expected to seek local consent for any restart.
Now that municipalities within a 30-km radius of a nuclear plant are obliged to draw up disaster response and evacuation plans, the city of Imari, part of which lies less than 30 km from the Genkai plant, is also demanding to be included in efforts by Kyushu Electric to obtain “local consent” for the restarts.
Handling Imari’s demands is a sensitive issue for Kyushu Electric executives and their political allies, who are concerned it could mean costly delays in restarting, even assuming local consent from everyone is obtained. And Imari is not the only locality that might cause trouble.
Eight towns and villages across three prefectures, with a total population of about 639,000, lie fully or partially within a 30-km radius of the Genkai plant.
Then there is the announcement last month that the No. 1 reactor would be decommissioned. Kyushu Electric officials told the Genkai assembly that scrapping the unit would generate 193,800 tons of waste, including 2,700 tons of radioactive waste. But questions ranging from where the spent nuclear fuel will be stored to how much Saga companies and residents will participate in the decommissioning have yet to be answered.
The utility is expected to file a plan for the decommissioning during the current fiscal year. But for many local politicians, the concern is what impact it will have on their economy.
“This is difficult to talk about, but I want Kyushu Electric to discuss local recovery assistance,” Genkai Mayor Hideo Kishimoto said last month.
Providing funds, though, could be problematic. Kyushu Electric remains deeply in the red due to fossil fuel expenditures needed to make up for not only the idled Genkai reactors but also two halted reactors at its Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. The cost of decommissioning the Genkai No. 1 reactor is estimated at ¥35.7 billion, and the process is expected to take 30 years. The utility says it has about 90 percent of the funds necessary already set aside.
Concern about the safety of restarting and decommissioning will be on the back of voters’ minds, but larger questions about Saga’s reliance on nuclear power are likely to go unanswered in the election, says Hatsumi Ishimaru, who describes herself as an ordinary homemaker who leads an anti-nuclear group and is involved in a lawsuit to stop the Genkai reactors from burning MOX “pluthermal” fuel. Last month, a Saga District Court judge ruled against the plaintiffs, who are preparing their appeal.
“Local politicians are just talking about nuclear safety to drum up votes. Even with the Fukushima disaster, people here aren’t thinking as seriously as they should be about what happens in the event of an accident,” she said.
A January public opinion poll by the Saga Shimbun showed that, for the first time in three years, over half of those surveyed, at 51.5 percent, favored restarting the reactors, while 45 percent were opposed. Support for the restarts was strongest among those in their 20s, especially in cities like Saga and Karatsu. On the other hand, 44 percent said they wanted to phase out nuclear power entirely, either now or in the future.
“The current economic situation in Saga Prefecture is such that, for the moment, nuclear power is necessary. While there is a desire to stop nuclear power, Saga people have lived with it for a long time. There’s a sense that restarts are inevitable, and that nuclear will remain an important base-load energy source,” said Tadanori Nishimura, director general of the LDP’s Saga chapter.
But whatever concerns about nuclear power individual voters, or candidates, may have, Sunday’s election is expected to return to power a pro-nuclear LDP majority given the party’s strength in Saga and the lack of large numbers of viable opposition party candidates.
Another question Saga voters and their representatives will face after the election is what to do about a Defense Ministry proposal to deploy Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft at Saga Airport.
In February, the ministry announced a basic plan for the airport. It envisions the purchase of 17 Ospreys by the Ground Self-Defense Force and the transfer of about 50 other helicopters of six different types from the Metabaru GSDF base in Saga to the airport, along with 700 to 800 service members. The move would be completed by 2019. Some 60 takeoffs and landings each day are predicted.
But the plan was announced not long after the January Saga gubernatorial election, in which the incumbent, who had indicated he would approve the plan, lost to Yoshinori Yamaguchi. Upon assuming the post, Yamaguchi promised to undertake a rethink of the plan.
“Yamaguchi has said that when he hears the entire proposal from the central government for the deployment, he’ll make a decision on whether to support it,” Nishimura said. He added that it appeared public opinion over the possible deployment of the aircraft to Saga Airport was mixed, with some hoping it would mean an economic boost for the surrounding area and others concerned about noise and safety issues.
Finally, there’s the more structural issue of agriculture and how to reform it. Yamaguchi won the governorship by running against an incumbent heavily backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his LDP, with support from the Saga branch of Japan’s giant agricultural cooperatives (JA) group, which was worried Abe would concede too much to the United States in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations, especially in the beef sector.
According to the most recent prefectural statistics, 22 percent of the prefecture is under cultivation even though the agricultural sector only accounts for 2 percent of the gross prefectural product. Of Saga’s total population of about 866,000, 16.5 percent, or 142,606, were engaged in farming in 2005, the last time the prefecture released such statistics.
Saga’s five main agricultural products are rice, beef, onions, mikan oranges and strawberries. Rice accounted for 24 percent of all agricultural production in 2012 and beef was second, at 10.4 percent.
“We’re in agreement with the current governor about the need for continuing reforms, while ensuring that the TPP doesn’t damage the farming sector. And we’re working with those candidates who share that understanding,” said a JA Saga spokesman.
While opposition to the TPP in Saga is strong, a declining population coupled with an increase in elderly farmers means people recognize that when it comes to local agriculture, reforms to meet new demographic realities are necessary.
But anti-nuclear activist Ishimaru suggested the kind of frank discussions often seen in local elections elsewhere are not the way Saga operates.
“Saga has traditionally been a farming community where people have to work closely together. So there’s a feeling you shouldn’t argue politics because you’ll upset the group harmony,” she said.