Japan from the inside out

More votes are in

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 30, 2012

The public’s will is not the commotion in front of the Kantei, but demonstrated in the procedures of democracy. For a person to run for governor by shouting about the minor issue of abandoning nuclear power is nonsense. Mr. Hashimoto (Osaka mayor) had the judgment of an adult (when he agreed to the resumption of operations at the Oi power plant)…Even former comedians can win local elections. The anti-nuclear power movement has less strength than show business personalities.
– Ikeda Nobuo

DOUBTLESS you have read either the articles or the headlines trumpeting the story of the thousands of people who surrounded the Diet building on Sunday to protest the restart of nuclear power plants in Japan. The RSS feed coughed up more than 30 articles on the subject yesterday and today. One image the journos particularly liked was “anti-nuclear protestors form human chain around Diet building”. There was no mention of the other productive activities they engaged in, but shouting loudly was probably one of them.

You’ll have to dig a little deeper in the English-language media to find articles about the real demonstration of functioning democracy yesterday in regard to the issue of nuclear power, however. Here’s a hint: They weren’t playing ring-around-the-rosie in Tokyo.

There have been two gubernatorial elections in Japan since Prime Minister Noda authorized the resumption of nuclear power generation, and both times one of the anti-nuclear power candidates tried to turn the balloting into a single-issue referendum. The first was held earlier this month in Kagoshima, where the anti-nuke challenger lost by a 2-1 margin. The second was held yesterday in Yamaguchi.

That election attracted much more media attention, both in Japan and overseas. The interest was due in part to the participation of Iida Tetsunari, the founder of the Institute for Sustainable Energy policies. Mr. Iida is one of those fellows whose priority is to keep his eye on the main chance, and he’s leveraged his slippery ambition into public prominence for his anti-nuclear energy positions and theories. He likes generation using biomass materials, the sun, and the wind.

The Yamaguchi election presented the opportunity of an excellent platform and bully pulpit. The current governor was stepping down after four terms, and the early favorite was the uninspiring, 63-year-old ex-Land, Industry, and Transport bureaucrat Yamamoto Shigetaro. Chugoku Electric Power plans to build a new nuclear plant at Kaminoseki in the prefecture. Mr. Yamamoto supported the idea, so that set up the perfect confrontation. He was backed by the bad old Liberal Democratic Party, now in the opposition, and their New Komeito allies. In contrast, Mr. Iida is 10 years younger, 10 times more photogenic, a media sweetie, and had the support of Sakamoto Ryuichi and other show business personalities.

The initial construction on the new Kaminoseki plant stopped after the Fukushima nuclear accident. The issue of finishing the construction became the proxy for the current national debate on nuclear power. The noise from that debate and Mr. Iida’s candidacy caused Mr. Yamamoto to declare that he would “freeze” work on the plant. On the day he made his official announcement, he said:

“It is natural to disconnect ourselves from a dependence on nuclear energy. It is the people’s wish (for Japan) to become a nation that, to the extent possible, does not depend on nuclear energy.”

The qualifications and exit ramps in that statement are obvious, but in any event, he seldom addressed the issue during his campaign. He concentrated instead on promises to revive industry and create employment by building ports, roads, and other infrastructure.

In contrast, Mr. Iida talked about little else, though he did try to tie that to a program of overall reform. He also came out strongly against the deployment of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft to a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Yamaguchi. That deployment created strong opposition, both in Yamaguchi and nationwide, because of safety concerns about the aircraft and the planned low-level training flights.

In other words, he had the wind of the media and show business culture at his back, and he chose to sail on the tide of opposition to controversial policies. Another factor worth noting is that Elmer Fudd Yamamoto had 27 Twitter followers while Iida the Cool Guy had more than 60,000. Twitter is used more frequently in Japan than it is in the United States to disseminate political messages.

It appeared an upset might be in the making.

The election was held yesterday. Here are the results:

* Yamamoto Shigetaro: 252,461 47.5%
* Iida Tetsunari : 185,654 35%
* Takamura Tsutomu: 55,418
* Miwa Shigeyuki: 37,150

After all the whiz-bang and pixel shooting, Mr. Iida’s 35% of the vote was roughly the same as the now-forgotten anti-nuclear energy candidate in Kagoshima. The people are speaking, but some other people don’t want to hear what they’re saying.

Also of interest are the results of an exit poll that asked voters what they considered the primary issue to be. They were:

* The economy and employment: 31.0%
* Energy policy: 15.3%.

Thus, the man who framed the debate in Yamaguchi was Yamamoto Shigetaro. If Iida Tetsunari could not turn nuclear power generation into the National Vibration with all that free PR and show biz mojo, it’s not going to happen.

The dogs that didn’t bark

Incidentally, the man who finished a distant third, Takamura Tsutomu, was a lower house MP from the ruling Democratic Party who resigned his seat to run for the office. (Another election must be held by next summer, and many DPJ MPs know it’s time to start thinking about a career change in anticipation of being relieved of their duties.) Mr. Takamura was also one of the 28 members of the small faction headed by Prime Minister Noda, but neither the prime minister nor any other DPJ bigwigs came to Yamaguchi to campaign. They knew it was pointless.

Most interesting was that two of Mr. Iida’s former associates also failed to make the short trip to Yamaguchi to stump for him. They were Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and Osaka Governor Matsui Ichiro, both of the One Osaka group. Mr. Hashimoto is known for having a Kitchen Cabinet of prominent advisors on his payroll, called “brains” in Japanese. Iida Tetsunari was his energy policy advisor, and was perhaps influential in the mayor’s initial opposition to the resumption of operations at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui.

Shortly after Mr. Hashimoto changed his mind and agreed to the plants’ restart, Mr. Iida resigned to run for Yamaguchi governor. Many wondered whether the mayor cut him adrift after he had served his purpose, or whether Mr. Iida saw the kanji on the wall and split while the splitting was good. Everyone was interested in watching what help Mr. Hashimoto or Mr. Matsui might provide to their former associate. It’s fewer than three hours by Shinkansen from Osaka, were they inclined to visit in person. They might also have offered remote support with a video hookup of the sort Sakamoto Ryuichi used, as shown in the photo above.

Neither man came to Yamaguchi or appeared live on video. That’s because neither man endorsed him.

The Iida negatives

Perhaps one reason for the cold shoulders is that Mr. Iida is more controversial, and the subject of more legitimate criticism, than the English-language media knew existed. Ishii Takaaki, a freelance journalist who writes about science and technology, has explained the reasons for the controversy and criticism in detail.

Mr. Ishii has followed the Iida career closely and has interviewed him several times. He said that he once respected him for his views — until 11 March last year. He has referred to Mr. Iida as a “trickster”, a good public speaker adept at presenting black-and-white frames for his policies, but who also spoke out of both sides of his mouth – one side for government officials, and the other side for anti-nuclear power radicals.

In a column published last night, Mr. Ishii dismissed the candidate and his campaign as revealing the limits of “typical citizen activism”. He noted that while no power industry reform is going to happen without the cooperation of the power companies, Mr. Iida spent most of his time bashing them to win media applause. He charged that a favorite Iida technique was to spread false rumors among the public, creating greater confusion. He also added that “people involved with energy-related issues” knew of the energy advisor’s negative influence on Osaka policy, and that his extremism caused (unexplained) difficulties on the Kansai-area committtees of which he was a member.

He had sharp words for Mr. Iida on policy grounds as well. The candidate wrote a book several years ago praising the policies of some North European countries that allow citizen groups to work out arrangements with the government and power companies to promote renewable energy. This was offered as “the path for Japan”, which Mr. Ishii thinks naïve. He noted that Sweden retains its nuclear power plants, and Denmark, a country of 5.5 million, imports “solid fuels” (read coal) for 21% of its energy needs. It also uses domestically produced oil for 41% of its power generation. (The idea that Japan should adopt the policies of small European nations, when Japan itself has a much larger population than any European country, is not uncommon here.)

The journalist also dismissed outright many of Mr. Iida’s statements as “clearly mistaken”, including:

* In the near future, nuclear energy will be supplemented by natural energy.
* Japan has sufficient energy now.
* There is a conspiracy of the nuclear power interests.
* Europe is the ideal.
* There is a lot of “hidden energy” in Japan.

Another indication of the forked Iida tongue was a brief flap over his membership in the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals as a research fellow since October 2009. Prominent members of that think tank include the former news reader Sakurai Yoshiko and freelance journalist Yayama Taro. They are conservatives who think Japan should actively pursue its national interests internationally, including the TPP negotiations. They are also not the sort of people the Asahi Shimbun editorial staff or Sakamoto Ryuichi would want to hang out with.

When it was brought to his attention that his name was on their Japanese-language website, Mr. Iida denied that he had ever been associated with the group. The institute quickly responded with a statement that said it was not possible they would accept anyone without their consent. Mr. Iida then remembered that it had slipped his mind.

Behind the Times

Little, if any, of the foregoing will be fit to print in the New York Times. Here’s why: Last week, Hiroko Tabuchi wrote an article on the Yamaguchi election remarkable for a tone of condescending snottery exceeding the level that is customary for the overeducated spitballers, particularly when Japan is the subject. While Tabuchi didn’t write the headline:

“In Conservative Japan Enclave, Antinuclear Candidate Gains Ground”

She did write the first sentence:

“In ordinary times, an election for governor in this rural corner of Japan known for puffer fish and tangerines would hardly be worth much of a mention in the national press.”

Didn’t waste any time jumping into their narrative, did they? Opposition to nuclear power is such a powerful issue that it’s even beginning to appeal to the inakappe who make a living by putting food on everyone else’s table.

The veil covering the superior attitude slips with the use of “enclave”, which has the meaning of a group or area different from its neighbors, either politically or ethnically. It most often describes territory that is alien to its surroundings. It’s unlikely that Tabuchi has spent much time there, unless she took an expense-paid trip to hear an Iida speech.

The newspaper missed an opportunity to unload another dump on the place when they failed to mention that the largest city, Shimonoseki, is home to Japan’s whaling fleet. Speaking of ports in this enclave in a rural corner of Japan, Shimonoseki is also one of the terminals for two separate ferry lines to South Korea (a three-hour trip) and China both.

But then:

“(N)early a year and a half after Japan’s nuclear disaster, the election is making news as it evolves into an informal referendum on nuclear power’s place in the country’s future.”

As we’ve seen, Mr. Iida failed to turn it into that referendum, but if they insist on viewing it that way, the votes are in.

“The vote Sunday pits a leading figure in the nascent antinuclear movement, Tetsunari Iida, against a former bureaucrat who was considered a shoo-in in a conservative prefecture that has long been a loyal bastion for his party. But polls have shown Mr. Iida, an independent and a political novice, rapidly gaining on Shigetaro Yamamoto, 63, who in many ways epitomizes Japan’s old guard.”

This was followed by a long paragraph of LDP bashing and explaining their role in nuclear power plant construction. While predictable, it’s also pointless: the demonstrations were touched off by the current DPJ government’s moves to restart the generators.

It is true that the Yamaguchi vote was an old guard election in many ways, however. Mr. Yamamoto is that kind of a guy, and Mr. Iida used the classic version of the old Japanese guard opposition tactic, “We oppose everything you say!”

“Mr. Iida’s campaign has taken off in part because it has attracted more than 1,000 volunteers who are working the phones, staging rallies and walking the prefecture’s sleepy towns and cities to spread Mr. Iida’s message.”

Sleepy, eh? Bright young energetic man with progressive ideas shakes awake the denshakan (田舎漢) and brings them into the 21st century. With all the snot in this piece, Tabuchi must have had a cold when she wrote it.

If his campaign “took off” so explosively to reach the 35% level in voting, Yamaguchi’s sleepy ones must have been the anti-nuclear power forces.

“He was little known before the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but his media savvy helped him become a go-to commentator on environmental issues as the country dealt with the world’s second-worst nuclear accident.”

She doesn’t mention who was doing the going-to, and after today, she never will. The compulsion to corral stray college profs and self-declared experts to act as media mouthpieces and cite them as “go-to” sources is closed-loop self-absorption, not news reporting.

The obvous lesson is that the objects of contempt are the true reality-based community the sophisticates presume themselves to be. They know what works and what doesn’t because their survival depends on it. The fashion statement of “Split wood not atoms” isn’t a survival choice, and hoping the wind blows and sun shines won’t be for some time yet.

Many nuclear energy critics like to say that “lives are more important than money”. Perhaps they should be given an enclave of their own to see how life goes when they don’t have any money.

The driver of the anti-nuclear energy movement is emotion — actual facts are unwelcome. All emotional issues tend to wane with the source of the emotional stimulation. As the memory of Fukushima recedes, and normalcy is once again defined by the absence of once-in-a-millenium disasters, so will the movement.

In the meantime, it is possible that some of the politicians bandwagoning on this issue — Hatoyama Yukio, Ichiro Ozawa, Your Party — will recede from the movement themselves now that they’ve read the election returns. It will be left to the radicals to carry on.


* Perhaps now the election results and the comparison of the number of Twitter followers for the two primary candidates will help debubble the froth about the triviality that has been exalted with the term “social media”. Well, that and the Facebook IPO flop.

* The Mainichi Shimbun released the results of a recent poll that are fascinating. They asked whether people felt sympathy with the demonstrators, and the results were evenly split at 47%-47%. Even more interesting is the age breakdown. Here are some percentages for age groups that felt sympathy for the demonstrators:

People in their 20s: 37%
People in their 50s and 60s: More than 50%

In other words, opposition to nuclear power in Japan is a Gray Panther issue.

The Mainichi poll also shows that support for the Noda Cabinet is the lowest they’ve recorded at 23%. That rate’s been in the 20s for a while, so nuclear power is not the reason for those numbers.

* One of the few DPJ politicians who openly endorsed Iida Tetsunari was Diet member Hiraoka Hideo, who was also the Justice Minister for all of four months until January. He was replaced in a larger Cabinet reorganization, in part because it was revealed that he chose as an aide a man with a criminal record. Mr. Hiraoka represents a district in Iwakuni, where the Marine Air Base is located.

He is also the only Diet member to have attended a graduation ceremony of a Chongryun school, the zainichi group affiliated with North Korea. He wants to legalize pachinko gambling, a business which has significant zainichi participation. He also criticizes the laws on foreign contributions to political campaigns, claiming that it is stricter than in other advanced countries. (Not the U.S.; it’s very much against the law there too, but that didn’t stop the Obama campaign.)

In other words, he might as well be wearing a sandwich board proclaiming his ethnic heritage (or, at a minimum, his political funding sources). That says quite a lot about Mr. Noda’s choices for Cabinet, designed in part to balance the party’s internal factions rather than select quality people. It also says quite a lot about the DPJ itself.

Mr. Hiraoka, incidentally, won his Diet seat outright in the last election. You never can tell the sort of people the hayseeds in backwater enclaves might vote for.

Iida Tetsunari wasn’t one of them.

Speaking of energy flows, here’s Sakamoto Ryuichi letting his fingers do the talking instead of his mouth.

4 Responses to “More votes are in”

  1. The New York Times Japan coverage is so bad it could fill a book (a Kindle-only broadside, perhaps). The jabs at backwater hicks who don’t understand important Tokyo issues are continuous.

    What I’ve heard from folks in Kyushu, though, is that the whaling fleet is no longer in Shimonoseki, but moved elsewhere some years ago. I’m pretty sure this is true myself because I went there for some whale burgers and found the supply had dried up. NYT purposefully obfuscated this in their past article about Shimonoseki which was basically one enormous deception — I’ve been wondering if I should discuss that further somewhere.

    A: Thanks for the note.

    A bit surprised to hear about Shimonoseki, because I thought I read just a year or two ago that they were still there. I’m busy with something else right now, but I did find this, albeit Wikipedia. It says the Nisshin Maru is still Shimonoseki-based, and the site mentions the year 2012.

    It also says the operator is the Institute for Cetacean Research, which is on the right sidebar and which I quickly visited, but couldn’t find anything.

    Let me know if you find more detail before I do.


    – A.

  2. You’re quite right, and my scuttlebutt was wrong. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. toadold said

    Victor Davis Hanson used a line about California, “An empire of lies.” I think it know applies to all the “ruling” elite these days. The repeated lies that come out of Brussels, and Washington DC are just unbelievable.

  4. Matthew said

    18 year resident of Yamaguchi-ken. Whale meat available every day in every supermarket in my area. Whale meat restaurants(i know of two specializing in WM and it is on the menu of countless places) and omiyage everywhere in Shimonoseki. However, I cannot speak to the actual basing of the fleet.

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