BMI View: Former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa's decision to run for the governorship of Tokyo on a staunchly anti-nuclear platform poses a challenge to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's desire to restart Japan's nuclear reactors. A victory by Hosokawa could increase criticism of Abe's energy policies, and indirectly, delay from his reform agenda.
The Tokyo gubernatorial election, due to be held on February 9, 2014, is shaping up to be a referendum of sorts on nuclear power in Japan. Although the governor of Tokyo in theory has no authority over national energy policy, the post is the most powerful directly-elected office in the country. Therefore, the incumbent will be able to use his position to become vocal on matters of national importance.
Background To Tokyo 2014 Election
The Tokyo gubernatorial election is being held early, because the previous governor, Naoki Inose, resigned on December 18, 2013 after admitting that he received a JPY50mn (US$480,770) loan from a scandal-hit hospital chain ahead of an election. Inose had been in office for only a year, during which he played a key role in campaigning for Tokyo's successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Inose's predecessor, Shintaro Ishihara, resigned in late 2012 in order to re-enter national politics. Ishihara, arguably Japan's highest-profile nationalist politician, had been governor since 1999, but decided to make a bid for prime minister in the December 2012 general election that was won by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Although Tokyo is one of 47 prefectures in Japan, it is the capital and the most populous region, with 13.2mn people. The Greater Tokyo urban agglomeration is the world's largest, with 35mn people.
The issue of nuclear power has become one of the most prominent in Japan following the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear triple disaster in the Tohoku region and Fukushima in March 2011. Prior to the catastrophe, Japan derived around 30% of its energy from nuclear power. Following the crisis, all of Japan's 48 atomic power plants were shut down, pending safety checks. Since then, Japan has had to dramatically increase its imports of hydrocarbons, thereby undermining its balance of payments position, and driving up domestic electricity prices. Prime Minister Abe wants to restart Japan's reactors, to 'stabilise Japan's energy supply-demand structure', but is facing considerable opposition from environmental groups, public safety organisations, and the general public. Abe announced in early January that his government would delay plans to publish a long-term energy strategy, due to concerns about nuclear restarts.
Implications Of Hosokawa's Candidacy
Morihiro Hosokawa served as Japan's prime minister from August 1993 to April 1994. He was noteworthy at the time for having been Japan's first non-LDP premier in 38 years. His tenure ended prematurely after he resigned over a financing scandal, thus paving the way for the LDP's return. Hosokawa, 76, has since been out of the public limelight, but his decision on January 13, 2014, to run for Tokyo governor as an independent candidate on a staunchly anti-nuclear platform is shaking up the race. Significantly, he has won the support of another former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, of the LDP. Koizumi, who served in 2001-2006, was arguably Japan's most successful leader in a generation, winning widespread popular support and presiding over a relatively robust economy. As prime minister, Koizumi supported the use of nuclear power, but the Fukushima disaster changed his mind. If Hosokawa is elected governor, this will not automatically change the central government's energy policy. Several reactors are due to come back online this year, most probably June at the earliest, pending regulatory approval. However, Hosokawa could complicate Abe's plans.
Other Candidates Also Anti-Nuclear
The other main candidate for Tokyo governor is Yoichi Masuzoe, a former LDP minister of health and welfare and political commentator who broke ranks from the party in 2010 over a variety of policy differences. Masuzoe also favours phasing out nuclear power in Japan, but has called for more consideration for alternative sources of energy. Although Masuzoe is running as an independent, he has won the backing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito coalition. For its part, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) supports Hosokawa.
The minor Social Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party are supporting Kenji Utsunomiya, a former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. Utsunomiya also supports phasing out nuclear power. A fourth candidate is former Air Self Defense Force chief of staff Toshio Tamogami, who was dismissed in 2008 for writing a controversial essay in which he denied that Japan had been an aggressor in World War II. Tamogami is backed by former governor Ishihara, and is campaigning on his leadership skills derived from his career in the military.
Although nuclear policy is a sensitive issue, Tokyo's voters will have other concerns, namely the economy and social services. Therefore, it is unclear if the gubernatorial candidates will benefit from focusing too sharply on the nuclear debate. The candidates will also pledge to do their utmost to make the 2020 Olympic Games successful, even though the event will be held after the next governor's term expires in 2018. Hosokawa is advocating part of the Olympics to be held in the devastated Tohoku region.
Pressure To Increase On Abe In 2014
Although Prime Minister Abe faces no electoral challenges in 2014, we expect him to come under greater political pressure, both from at home and abroad. On the domestic front, his popularity could suffer as the consumption tax rises from 5% to 8% in April. He is also facing challenges from vested interest groups opposing his structural reforms, which constitute the 'third arrow' of his 'Abenomics' agenda. On the international front, Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (where several class A war criminals are honoured alongside Japan's war dead) on December 26 has exacerbated already tense relations with China and South Korea. The visit also prompted criticism from the United States, Japan's top ally.
As regards relations with the US, one of Abe's successful moves, namely persuading Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima to accept a new American marine base in the island prefecture for the purposes of strengthening US-Japan military cooperation, is coming under criticism. The city of Nago on Okinawa will hold a mayoral election on January 19, with the incumbent, Susumi Inamine, opposing the new base. The LDP-backed candidate, Bunshin Suematsu, supports the facility. A victory by Inamine could complicate the relocation of American military forces on Okinawa at a time when Japan has become more reliant on the US, as it seeks to rebuff China's assertiveness over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.