Campaigning kicked off on Thursday for the Feb. 9 Tokyo gubernatorial election, which will not only decide the leader of the nation’s capital but also influence the debate on whether Japan should continue to rely on nuclear power — a major issue that will help determine the shape of Japan’s future.

The nuclear issue has assumed great importance because former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa has entered the race with the backing of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and is running on a “zero nuclear” platform — a stance shared by Koizumi. Both Hosokawa and fellow candidate Kenji Utsunomiya, a former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, are calling for the immediate halt of nuclear power generation. They oppose the Abe administration’s plan to restart idled nuclear power plants if their safety is confirmed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

Candidate Yoichi Masuzoe,a former health and welfare minister, calls for ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power over the long term while another candidate, former ASDF Gen. Toshio Tamogami, favors the continued use of nuclear power.

Some people, in particular Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, oppose the idea of treating nuclear power as a major issue in the Tokyo gubernatorial election. In an apparent effort to prevent the nuclear power issue from rousing wide interest among Tokyo voters, Abe said energy policy is an issue not just for Tokyoites but for all Japanese, adding that various issues that the Tokyo governor must deal with should be discussed in a balanced manner.

Yet Tokyo, which consumes about 10 percent of Japan’s total electricity, is the biggest power user among Japan’s 47 prefectures. And it must not be forgotten that the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened as a result of the central government’s long-standing policy of promoting nuclear power generation without taking sufficient steps to ensure that these plants were managed in a proper manner by both the government and the power companies.

To say that nuclear power should not be an issue in the Tokyo gubernatorial election is ludicrous as the question of what to do about nuclear power affects everyone in this small, quake-prone country — including the tens of millions of people living and working in the nation’s capital. Discussions of technological, environmental and ethical problems related to the nation’s need to permanently store high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and what kind of society Japan should evolve into should be embraced rather than avoided. But Abe is eager to avoid such discussions because he is keen to continue doing “business as usual” in the area of energy policy.

Apparently in view of the devastation caused by the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Hosokawa said he feels a sense of crisis because the nuclear issue relates to the question of the state’s very life and death. Koizumi said the Tokyo gubernatorial election will be a contest between two groups — a group that thinks Japan can advance without nuclear power and a group that does not think so. Their statements are anything but trivial.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government can do quite a few things in the field of energy, such as making serious efforts to save power, promote green energy and using waste heat to generate electricity. Through such efforts it should strive to present an urban model that greatly reduces or ends reliance on electricity generated by nuclear power plants. This would not doubt impact the policies of other local governments as well as the central government.

It is true that Tokyo faces many problems, and the credibility of the candidates advocating a zero-nuclear policy will also depend on whether they can also present viable proposals on issues such as improvements in social welfare, bolstering preparedness against a large earthquake expected to strike in the not-too-distant future, job creation and eradication of poverty, and astute management of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Let the debates begin.

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