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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Nuclear politics in Yamaguchi

Green power, anti-Osprey upstart vs. old guard on conservative turf

Staff writer

IWAKUNI, Yamaguchi Pref. — Nearly a century and a half ago, members of the Choshu clan in what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture helped lead a revolt that overthrew the Tokyo-based Tokugawa shogunate and ushered in modern Japan.

News photo
Shigetaro Yamamoto
News photo
Tetsunari Iida

Today, the race for Yamaguchi governor, which takes place Sunday in what both locals and outsiders say is Japan's most politically conservative prefecture, is mainly between a younger reform candidate seeking a green revolution and an older candidate backed by the old guard in Yamaguchi and Tokyo.

The main candidates in the four-man race are Tetsunari Iida, 53, and Shigetaro Yamamoto, 63.

Yamamoto, once a bureaucrat in the former Construction Ministry, is the consummate conservative political insider.

Independent candidate Iida, on the other hand, is known as "Mr. Renewable Energy," the head of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies who over the past year has been one of the most visible critics of nuclear power and the nation's utilities.

The other two candidates are also running without traditional party support. One is Shigeyuki Miwa, 53, a doctor. The other is Tsutomu Takamura, 38, a former Democratic Party of Japan Diet member who resigned his seat and left the party to run for governor.

Recent polls show that Yamamoto is leading the race with Iida in second place.

"All of my friends told me I was crazy to run for governor," Iida said last month after he announced his candidacy. "But through changing the way energy is generated and distributed at the local level, I believe that I can change Japan as Yamaguchi governor, just as Yamaguchi Prefecture changed Japan with the Meiji Restoration."

The future of nuclear power locally is one of two main issues dominating the campaign.

For three decades, Chugoku Electric Power Co. has planned to build two nuclear reactors by 2020 in Kaminoseki, a town on the Seto Inland Sea. But strong, sometimes violent, opposition among local fishing cooperatives and those who live on small islands near the planned site has prevented the project from proceeding.

Last September, in an apparent victory for the nuclear camp, Kaminoseki residents elected as their mayor Shigemi Kashiwabara, who aggressively supported the building of the nuclear power plant.

He received nearly twice the number of votes as his opponent, who was against the plant and had the support of nuclear opponents in Yamaguchi Prefecture and elsewhere.

But the opposition continued and finally, last month, current Yamaguchi Gov. Sekinari Nii, who decided not to seek a fifth term, announced he would not approve an extension of the permit for reclaiming land for the power plant due to the lack of progress.

Now both Yamamoto and Iida are opposed to going ahead with construction. But while Iida wants to kill the project, Yamamoto says he wants to freeze it.

"Since the Tohoku earthquake, it's natural to move toward getting out of nuclear power. So I support first freezing the project and then holding a discussion with prefectural residents on what should be done," Yamamoto said earlier this month.

The other main issue is the question of the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft now at the U.S. Marine base in Iwakuni. Officially, the Ospreys are parked there only temporarily before they are moved to the Futenma base in Okinawa in October. But with Okinawan opposition to the deployment strong and test flights at Iwakuni needed before any move is made, a large number of residents in Iwakuni and the surrounding area are concerned that the Ospreys may be an unwelcome neighbor for a long time.

On this issue, Iida and Yamamoto appear to be much closer. Both have said they oppose having the Ospreys in Iwakuni. However, Yamamoto is believed to be more flexible than Iida on whether to allow a long stay at Iwakuni.

Yamamoto is the conservative establishment candidate, and enjoys the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito as well as numerous bureaucrats, business leaders and influential politicians like former Prime Minister Shintaro Abe, who is also from Yamaguchi Prefecture. At a recent fundraising event, attendees included Abe and members of the local construction industry, and Yamamoto has the unofficial support of the powerful Keidanren business lobby as well as Chugoku Electric.

Iida, meanwhile, has taken his message of a green revolution in Yamaguchi to women and younger voters. A number of nationally influential figures are helping his campaign. Musician and dedicated antinuclear activist Ryuichi Sakamoto and former Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry bureaucrat-turned-author and pro energy advocate Shigeaki Koga have both visited Yamaguchi in recent days to show their support.

One noticeably absent voice of support is Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.

Koga served with Iida on a recent committee established by Hashimoto to review Osaka's long-term energy strategy, and both were fierce critics of Kansai Electric Power Co.

However, when Iida announced he was running for governor, Hashimoto said his political group, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), wouldn't be offering support.

Hashimoto said it was because he didn't feel it right for a local political group like Osaka Ishin no Kai to get involved. But in recent months, Hashimoto and Abe have made overtures to each other, with the former prime minister praising Hashimoto for forcing Osaka teachers to sing the national anthem. With talk of a Lower House election growing stronger, many in Osaka Ishin no Kai did not want to pick a fight with a potential ally like Abe, especially in a race many believe Iida will lose.

Media polls taken earlier this month show that they may be right, as several newspaper and television surveys showed Iida was trailing Yamamoto. But the deployment of the Ospreys and the ongoing protests in Tokyo over nuclear power appeared to be having an impact on poll numbers over the past week, as Iida was said to be closing the gap, especially among women.

"It's time to put an end to nuclear power. It's dangerous and Japanese technology in renewable energies is world-class. That's the way forward," said Atsuko Fujinami, 41, who works at a department store in the city of Iwakuni.

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