“I’m really getting sick and tired of talking pessimistic about the future of Japan. Two years ago, I said, let me run the LDP, I can probably run it better than anyone else.”
With that, Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) member Taro Kono simultaneously opened the press conference and announced his intention to seek the presidency of his party. Kono, who was first elected in 1996 and currently serves in the Lower House, won the 2nd largest number of votes for the presidency last year. He lost to former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, an old-school politician with no charisma but plenty of factional support.
Is it possible that Japan’s former ruling political party, the LDP, which ran the country for five decades and introduced nuclear power, could also be the same party to lead Japan out of the nuclear mire? Many people would argue this is unlikely. It was the LDP which created the nexus of bureaucrats, corrupt politicians, dysfunctional oversight agencies, and the monopolistic electrical power companies known as Japan’s “nuclear mafia”. It’s hard to conceive they could also be the one to break up the system and put Japan back on track; most people are justly dubious. However, there is rising popular support for Mr. Kono both within his own party and the Japanese public. He has become a political celebrity, often interviewed in magazines and on television.
Kono speaks English fluently, a rarity among Japanese politicians. He attended university in the States and went on to work for two southern politicians in the 1980s. His confident, even aggressive style is also unusual among his peers. On the currently ruling DPJ, he comments, “Really, they are just taking orders from the bureaucrats. They don’t know what the hell is going on”. And about the quarter of his party that threatens to leave if he wins the presidency? “That’s OK, we don’t need them. We can ask better members of the other parties to join us.” For an LDP politician, that voice of inclusion and sanity is widely different from the usual tribal politics that dominate the organization.
Among the things he is pushing: deregulation, pension reform (he rants: “2004 reform was a big failure. No one is talking about that right now. Where did it go? I am the only one talking about this.”), and of course, like all radical politicians, the eventual phasing out of Japan’s nuclear power program.
This, and his relative youth, distinguish him considerably from the old LDP guard. In a US cable dated October 27th, 2008 (courtesy of Wikileaks) Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer reports: “During this meeting, (Kono) voiced his strong opposition to the nuclear industry in Japan, especially nuclear fuel reprocessing, based on issues of cost, safety, and security. Kono claimed Japanese electric companies are hiding the costs and safety problems associated with nuclear energy, while successfully selling the idea of reprocessing to the Japanese public as ‘recycling uranium.’…He also accused METI of covering up nuclear accidents, and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry.”
Kono envisions the phase-out concretely; he hopes to have all nuclear plants decommissioned by 2050, replaced by renewable energy and then, if necessary, supplemented by natural gas. Acknowledging that overnight abandonment of the nuclear plants isn’t realistic, his plan includes allowing the use of nuclear-generated energy until renewables can take over; this has a time limit, as he also opposes building more reactors. But first: fire the upper management of TEPCO, do tests on both the hardware and the software, and after that discuss which plants are safe to operate.
One of the main concerns Kono has about nuclear energy in Japan is the ever-increasing amount of spent fuel that is piling up without a place to store it, or a working strategy to discover one. Though the government claims it will find a place to dump the nuclear waste by 2028, the testing required to meet that deadline hasn’t taken place and thus is probably 10 years behind schedule. However, the government still hasn’t admitted to this, and of course more and more waste is produced every day. He likens this faith, blinded by the shiny shiny yen, in an abruptly sobering way: to the Japanese army of WWII. “Anything is possible if you have mind to do it… but at the end of the day you just lose everything.”
His outspokenness on this issue and others have made him many enemies. As the only member of his party who has questioned the safety of nuclear power, he reports that he is often asked “Are you a Communist?” Some have even publicly called for him to join the socialist party (he jokes that he isn’t sure if this is an upgrade or a downgrade from “Communism”).
Pointing out that the DPJ is owned by the power company labor unions (while the LDP is essentially owned by the companies themselves), Kono doesn’t convey optimism about the current system’s ability to objectively handle this crisis. He also warns that though the media has stepped up its reporting on energy companies since the accident, they are also held back by the possibility of losing lucrative advertising from the power companies. “Probably every single media in Japan is bought and paid for by power companies. When I go to TV stations in Tokyo, they say, well they understand that TEPCO will probably not be buying much more advertising time. But local TV stations still get many offers from electric companies. So if the major TV stations criticize power companies, the local ones won’t receive that advertising. So they have to be a little calm right now”.
Kono also laments a missed opportunity for the LDP to reform. When the DPJ took power for the first time in 40 years, the senior LDP leaders realized that their party needed to change. “I thought DPJ would rule the country for 10 years and that they will do the reforms that LDP couldn’t have done. So for LDP it would be a dark 10 years–though we could use those years to get rid of the old people and bring in a young generation.” But now, Kono believes, due to the unexpected failure of the DPJ, the sentiment among those LDP have changed; by the weakness of their competition, the LDP has been lured into complacency, “and the moment to change the party disappeared”.
Still, he observes, “If you go talk to people on the street, they hate the DPJ. But they don’t feel the LDP has changed a bit.” Despite irritation with one party, distrust of the other remains; just one of many discouraging parallels to the current political U.S. system, one of the republics after which the Japanese one was modeled.
On how his party has treated him since the disaster: “Now, a lot of senior LDP members look at me and say, you are right. There was an accident. But I was never talking about an accident, just about the danger of the spent fuel.”
He jokingly suggests that this means no one was “actually listening to what [he’s] been saying”; but it is telling that the LDP politicians confused those two subjects. One might speculate that to the bribed politicians who willfully ignore concerns about nuclear safety, subversive types [like Kono] haunt a conscience that was long-ago smothered in the asphyxiating folds of TEPCO’s pocket; perhaps, any suggestion of genuine oversight seems like “the right choice”, and in the mind of these civil servants, Kono’s warnings occupy a space in their brain not specifically about “spent fuel” or “industry-government collusion”, but more broadly labeled “accountability”, “statesmanship”, or maybe “civic duty”.
As the conference came to a close, Kono, maybe unconsciously, provided a thought-provoking reference to his previous WWII analogy: “If we have a mind to do it, there will be more investment, more research and development, and more people will see the bright future with renewables. There are some scholars who say that renewables are not enough. But people said the same thing about nuclear power plants, that they would be safe. But that wasn’t the case. I don’t really care what they say. We simply have to set the goal and work towards it.”