The race to become the next governor of Tokyo began yesterday in an election widely seen as a referendum on Japan’s energy policy, almost three years after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
Observers said the Feb. 9 election will be a two-way race between the anti-nuclear former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Yoichi Masuzoe, an academic and former health minister, who served as a member of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government.
“We have to stop [the policy of] restarting nuclear plants as soon as possible and adapt to a new era,” Hosokawa said on the campaign trail yesterday.
Japanese voters have become wary of nuclear power since the tsunami-sparked disaster at Fukushima began in March 2011, but the issue failed to materialize in the national polls that swept Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power, with his opponents’ apparent haplessness neutralizing their anti-nuclear stance.
The governor of Tokyo has no actual power to change national energy policy, but the sheer size of the city, with 13 million inhabitants and a pivotal place in the economic, political and cultural life of Japan, means its verdict will be tough to ignore.
Hosokawa, whose 1993 to 1994 stint as prime minister is little more than a footnote to modern political history, has the backing of wildly popular one-time prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
The abundantly coiffured Koizumi has shunned the limelight since his five-year term ended in 2006, but he emerged as an anti-nuclear convert midway through last year and began agitating for the permanent shuttering of Japan’s nuclear reactors.
That put him at odds with Abe, his one-time protege who has vowed to get the plants back on line when they have passed new, more stringent safety tests.
Popular memories of the 2001 to 2006 Koizumi administration remain overwhelmingly positive, and his backing is expected to give Hosokawa a significant boost, analysts said.
“At this point Mr Masuzoe seems to be the strongest candidate, as Mr Hosokawa has been largely mum about the details of his policy stances,” Tokyo University professor of politics Sadafumi Kawato said.
However, “Mr Koizumi is still popular and honestly I can’t predict the vote result,” he added.
“But if Mr Hosokawa wins the election, it could be an obstacle to Prime Minister Abe’s energy policy,” he said, adding that Tokyo is a major shareholder of Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of the Fukushima plant.
However, in a note to clients, research consultancy Capital Economics said Abe, whose drive to reinvigorate Japan’s sluggish economy is widely believed to be bearing fruit, may be able to ride out a negative result in the Tokyo poll.
“The influence of local politicians on energy policy is limited. The national government should therefore still be able to resume nuclear generation in coming months whichever way the Tokyo vote goes,” it said.
Masuzoe, who gained fame as a political scientist and TV pundit, said his priority was to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics a success.
“I want to have the best Olympics and Paralympics ever in history,” he said, adding that public safety, disaster prevention and social welfare services are also among his priorities.
On energy policy, he said: “It is better to reduce the ratio” of nuclear power in energy consumption, in [the] short term, securing the safety of nuclear plants is important.”