Until former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa unexpectedly threw his hat in the ring, the election for a new governor of Tokyo on 9 February looked set to be a regular affair focusing on city matters such as planning for the 2020 Olympics and medical care. At one stroke, Hosokawa changed the debate. He is standing, unapologetically, on a single issue: he wants to use Tokyo’s political leverage – and its position as the fourth-largest shareholder in power company Tepco – to end Japan’s relationship with nuclear power once and for all. Suddenly, a metropolitan election has become a referendum on national energy policy.
Hosokawa argues that it’s even more than that: that it’s about Japan’s fundamental direction as a nation. With the country’s nuclear reactors still idle following the 2011 disaster, Hosokawa is pressing for them never to be switched on again. His argument is that this is a pivotal moment for Japan. If prime minister Shinzo Abe has his way and starts up the reactors this year, Hosokawa predicts that Japan will only find itself in the same energy predicament 40 years down the line. Now, he says, is the time for Japan to abandon nuclear power and build a new economy based on renewable energy.
There is a romanticism about Hosokawa, who cuts a charismatic figure at 76. The grandson of a former prime minister, he was born a marquis (a title he lost in 1947 when the Japanese peerage was abolished). His tenure as prime minister in the early 1990s was brief but notable for being the first in nearly four decades to break the dominance of the Liberal Democratic party.
He left politics in 1998 to lead a rural life working on his ceramics. And as if his decision to stand wasn’t stunning enough, the other revelation was his chief supporter: former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who had his own epiphany after 2011 and is now firmly anti-nuclear.
That these two heavyweights felt compelled to bring the nuclear issue to a city election is indicative of how little debate there is at a national level. Shinzo Abe’s government says that nuclear power still has a role to play in Japan’s future; those who do oppose the restarting of the reactors – which polls show to be the majority of Japanese – find little voice.
Whether that sentiment will translate to votes for Hosokawa remains to be seen. His main rivals are both veterans of previous Tokyo campaigns: one, Yoichi Masuzoe, is backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic party; the other, Kenji Utsunomiya, is a lawyer who won nearly a million votes at the last governor elections in 2012.
Hosokawa said last week that he knew he was dealing in big ideas but that Japan now faced a stark choice between two opposing value systems. Does Japan want to continue down the same path of nuclear-dependent mass consumption and production or does it want a more environmentally sensitive alternative better suited to its diminishing population?
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.