Former Japanese prime minister's effort to end nuclear power riles party

Former prime minister's return to spotlight to demand government phase out reactors has caused concerns in Tokyo's halls of power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 4:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 5:06pm

In the years after he stepped down as prime minister of Japan in September 2006 and then left the political arena in 2009, Junichiro Koizumi was apparently happy to remain in the shadows.

But the hugely popular Koizumi has decisively stepped back into the spotlight to demand that the government phase out nuclear power.

And such a high-profile figure breaking rank with his Liberal Democratic Party's official line on nuclear power has caused concern in Tokyo's halls of power.

After visiting nuclear facilities in Finland and Germany - which has committed to closing down all its nuclear plants by 2022 - Koizumi said his belief that Japan should get rid of its nuclear reactors had only been reinforced.

His comments were initially ignored by the media, until he began to repeat them in media interviews and then, on October 20, he invited reporters to a lecture during which he was strongly critical of the government's vow to restart the nation's mothballed reactors. His condemnations of the country's official policy made headlines the next day and have continued to do so in the nation's media since then.

Unable to overlook the attention-grabbing debate that his charismatic predecessor had been provoking any longer, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Koizumi's proposals were "irresponsible", while another minister said Koizumi was clearly not thinking about what he was saying.

The former prime minister has refused to accept the dismissal of his conversion to a fierce opponent of nuclear energy quietly and on Tuesday met Tadatomo Yoshida, who is the head of the left-wing Social Democratic Party, which is similarly fiercely opposed to retaining nuclear energy.

That meeting immediately set tongues wagging that the 71-year-old Koizumi might be planning a political comeback, although he ruled that out.

"I do not believe he has political ambitions any more, but I do believe he is speaking from his heart on the nuclear issue now," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

"But this conversion has come as something of a surprise because, as far as I know, he never advocated a non-nuclear policy during his premiership or afterwards."

The government and Abe, whom Koizumi personally supported as his successor as prime minister when he stepped down in 2006, had clearly tried to avoid getting drawn into the debate, Shimada said.

"The LDP has many politicians who want to avoid provoking members of the public who are anti-nuclear energy - and they are in the majority since the disaster at the Fukushima plant-- so they kept quiet," he said, adding that there was also a fear in the government that Koizumi could emerge as the eloquent and charismatic poster-boy for the anti-nuclear campaign.

Even more worrying for a party made up of various competing factions would be members sensing that public opinion is turning against the LDP on atomic energy.

"At some point, the public has to be given the sense that the situation at Fukushima is truly under control, as Mr Abe has been telling us repeatedly," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

"If that does not happen, it will be difficult for some LDP members, especially those from constituencies in and around the affected areas, to remain supportive of the government's policies.

"And that could grow into a very strong voice within the party against nuclear energy."

Okumura agrees that Koizumi is committed to his opposition to nuclear energy, but points out that the LDP has a secret weapon that might make him step back from the debate again.

When Koizumi left politics, he handed his safe LDP seat in Kanagawa's 11th district to his second son, Shinjiro.

At 32 years old, Shinjiro Koizumi's political rise has been meteoric and he is generating a solid support base, in part after he volunteered to take on the burden of minister overseeing the reconstruction of the Tohoku region after the March 2011 disasters, a thankless task that no-one else in the party would take on.

Shinjiro Koizumi is seen as a future prime minister and is closely toeing the party line on nuclear energy.

His father, Okumura believes, is not likely to upset his son's aspirations.