TOKYO — THESE days you can hardly open a newspaper or turn on a television in Japan without encountering another story relating to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s call, after visiting a nuclear waste facility in Finland, for ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power. Since Mr. Koizumi made his comments in September, Japanese newspapers have been filled with positive editorials about the possibility of a nonnuclear future.
I’m no fan of nuclear power myself, and yet I can’t help feeling that there is something odd about this sudden surge of interest in denuclearization. Until his recent change of heart, Mr. Koizumi was a vocal advocate of nuclear power, much like his protégé, the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who engineered the Liberal Democratic Party’s return to power last year on a pro-growth, pronuclear platform.
When Mr. Abe pledged to focus on growth powered by nuclear energy, he held out a vision of an alternative to the harsh reality of two decades of economic stagnation. This dream persuaded people to vote for his party, even though more than half the population favored denuclearization.
But now that “Abenomics” — expanding the money supply to spur inflation and push interest rates below zero; pushing the yen down, to revive the country’s once mighty export sector; and increasing the government’s already huge public debt to pay for new investments in infrastructure and research — is no longer just a proposal, but actual policy, the mood has changed. People all around the country — including Mr. Koizumi, I suspect — are becoming anxious about the future of Abenomics. They are coming to realize that the dream of returning Japan to the era of rapid export-led growth between the end of World War II and the late 1980s might not be realistic.
Whether Abenomics can ever live up to the sky-high expectations of Japanese voters remains to be seen. If the reality of Abenomics turns out not to live up to its promise, why not give the other side a chance? Why not try to break free, once and for all, of our dependence on nuclear energy?
This transformation in the relationship between reality and the alternative, I think, explains Mr. Koizumi’s sudden change of heart. As a senior politician, he has his eye on the future of the L.D.P.: He is marking a new course for a younger generation of politicians so that they can remain in power in case Abenomics does fail. This is also the reason behind the media’s new willingness to discuss denuclearization.
In other words, people in Japan are beginning to wonder whether those “two lost decades” really were “lost” after all. Perhaps those years were simply the prelude to a new post-growth era. And maybe in this new age the end of economic growth is less scary than the dependence on nuclear power.