The surprise entry of a 76-year-old retired prime minister-turned-potter in the Tokyo governor’s race is turning the election into a virtual referendum on the future of nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan.
Morihiro Hosokawa, who led Japan two decades ago, has emerged as a front-runner, backed by another former prime minister, the hugely popular Junichiro Koizumi, one of Japan’s longest-serving leaders.
Both are known as opponents of nuclear power, and a Hosokawa victory could deal a setback to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants and export nuclear reactors.
“I have a sense of crisis that our country’s survival is at stake over various problems Japan faces, particularly nuclear power,” Hosokawa said last week. He has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday to lay out his platform.
The graying Koizumi, standing next to Hosokawa at a Tokyo hotel when he first publicly endorsed him, said the Feb. 9 election is going to be a battle between those who say Japan has no future without nuclear energy and others who say Japan needs a future without nuclear energy, and can prosper without it.
When in power, both men supported nuclear power. But they have turned against it, Koizumi after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, and Hosokawa several years before that.
Resource-poor Japan originally turned to nuclear power decades ago to promote industrialization and economic growth and later to keep from becoming so reliant on imported fossil fuels. Before the 2011 Fukushima crisis, nuclear power generated about a third of its electricity.
Since then, Japan’s public has largely turned against nuclear power. The Asahi newspaper survey in November showed 60 percent of respondents supported Koizumi’s “zero nuclear” policy, compared to 25 percent who opposed.
“If Hosokawa wins, this is big trouble for Abe and his advocacy for restarting nuclear reactors,” said Jeff Kingston, head of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
The leader of Tokyo could have significant impact on national energy policy.
The city of 13 million — with millions more in surrounding suburbs — is among the world’s biggest economies and is among the top shareholders of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and two other nuclear power plants in Fukushima and Niigata, both with anti-nuclear governors.
Read more at Tokyo Governor Poll a Referendum Over Nuke Policy
Related article: 【Editorial】Election spotlight on nuclear power via The Japan Times