Still struggling to establish a coherent identity and platform in the wake of its largely disastrous period in office in 2009-2012, Japan’s Democratic Party (DP) will hold its 2017 conference next week, on March 12th. But as it does, fresh fractures have opened up in the party’s shaky internal alliances: a seemingly minor proposed revision to the DP’s position on nuclear power has created a rift between party leader Renho and the DP’s biggest institutional backer, the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).
The DP’s present stance is that Japan should reach a point where zero nuclear power plants are in operation sometime during the 2030s; Renho’s intention is to create a clearer distinction between the DP and the ruling LDP by taking a slightly harder policy line and pledging to end all nuclear power operations by 2030. Renho and other senior figures in the DP are seemingly frustrated by the LDP’s piecemeal adoption of certain DP policy positions that had proved popular with the electorate, and are seeking new, distinct policies which appeal to voters and directly contrast with the LDP’s approach.
The problem is that in proposing a change to the nuclear policy, Renho has uncovered a faultline within her own party. Not only is the DP backed by Rengo, which includes the electrical workers’ union, whose members have a clear interest in continuing nuclear power operations; many DP politicians are also wary of the impact on both industrial output and consumers’ power bills that may result from a hasty withdrawal from nuclear power, let alone the enormous decommissioning costs that may arise. The original “in the 2030s” policy was a compromise from the outset; many factions within the DP would have preferred to entirely avoid pledging an end to nuclear power. Pushing the issue back to the 2030s (when most existing nuclear power plants in Japan will have reached, or will be reaching, the end of their operational lives) was a deal everyone could more or less live with. Pulling that forward even by a few years upsets the balance of the compromise and brought Rengo out fighting to assert its power within the party.
This piles frustration upon frustration for Renho, whose tenure as DP leader has been largely unsuccessful thus far. She remains an enormously popular figure in a personal capacity—in fact, the degree to which her popularity and recognition outstrips any other DP politician became an electoral issue for the party in last year’s House of Councillors election, as she racked up millions of “spare” votes in the Tokyo district while other DP politicians scraped into office on much smaller margins. However, since taking leadership she has struggled to make any impact; overshadowed in her home constituency of Tokyo by the rise to prominence of Governor Yuriko Koike and presiding over an unruly, undisciplined, and disunited party with no clear ideological stance, the most memorable news story of her leadership thus far has been a minor but nonetheless damaging scandal over her unwitting failure to properly relinquish Taiwanese citizenship decades ago.
While some of Renho’s troubles can be blamed on the nature of the party she inherited—a conglomerate of politicians from a variety of party and ideological backgrounds, formed through a series of opposition mergers whose scars are still clearly visible on the surface—this unhelpful in-fighting over nuclear policy is an error of her own making. Her desire to stake out bold policy positions which clearly demonstrate the gap between the LDP and the DP is understandable and even commendable; one of the DP’s biggest problems is that few voters see their policies as substantively different for the LDP’s, making elections entirely about administrative competence, in which the LDP is seen as more effective. Upsetting the balance of a carefully worked-out compromise deal, however, is risky—and while risk-taking isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, this is an awfully strange issue over which to pick a fight.
Nuclear power, and the restarts of nuclear power plants in particular, is an ongoing issue in Japanese current affairs but faded several years ago as a top-of-mind electoral issue. Outside of areas hosting nuclear power plants, debates around nuclear power peaked within electoral politics with 2014’s Tokyo gubernatorial election, when former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa ran with the backing of another former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, as an explicitly anti-nuclear candidate. He lost the election; by the next gubernatorial election in 2016, nuclear power barely warranted a mention in coverage of the campaigns, a pattern repeated in many other national and regional elections.
Within areas that host nuclear power plants, the debate remains more urgent, but is more complex. Six years after the 3/11 triple disaster, concerns over the job security of power plant workers and the economic prosperity of the towns that rely upon them have in many cases overtaken fears of another Fukushima-esque disaster. These rural communities will often choose a small risk of having to leave their homes due to a nuclear accident over the absolute certainty of economic extinction should the power plants be shut down for good.
That nuclear power is no longer a hot-button political issue for most Japanese voters shouldn’t be surprising. The DP’s fiddling around the edges of the issue (does any voter, other than electrical industry workers worried for their economic future, truly care whether the last plant is decommissioned “by 2030” or “in the 2030s”?) underscores the truth of the matter; Japan already made the key decision on nuclear power. Six years after Fukushima, the country has in four separate elections returned to power a government that has pledged to restart nuclear reactors that meet new, more stringent safety standards. The mid-term future of Japan’s nuclear power was already decided when, in 2012, the returning LDP government chose this course of action in preference to, for instance, Germany’s rapid decommissioning programme.
The nuclear policy question the DP has plunged itself into discord over may even transpire to be an entirely moot point. Japan’s existing reactors, once restarted, will give the country another decade or two of service; by the time the debate over whether to renew them or build new plants kicks off, it’s very possible that nuclear power won’t be a commercially attractive option anyway. The rapid advances being made in solar power and in high-capacity battery technology mean that short of a major technological upset, this is likely to offer by far the lowest-cost power generation at scale by the 2030s. Nuclear has its own advances to offer, but in contrast to the massive amounts of research funding pouring into technologies required for battery-backed renewables, the nuclear industry’s research capacity faces challenges from governments withdrawing from nuclear power and major companies (including Japan’s own Toshiba) winding down their operations in the field.
In short, Renho has picked a fight with the DP’s biggest backer and many of her own lawmakers over the minutiae of a policy that voters don’t really care about and which will likely be rendered irrelevant by technological and commercial advances anyway. The DP, for once, has been lucky; its split over this issue has been overshadowed by the Abe administration’s tribulations over corruption allegations related to the Moritomo Gakuen elementary school in Osaka. But attention will no doubt turn back to the DP at their March 12th conference. If they want to be taken more seriously as a competent opposition force, they had better have something far more impressive to show off than this divisive and ultimately pointless policy.
Rob Fahey is a PhD researcher at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @