Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

Nuclear Power in the New Abe Cabinet

The latest reshuffle was notable for several reasons, but not least for bringing nuclear power back into the spotlight.

By Tom Corben for
Nuclear Power in the New Abe Cabinet

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his new cabinet pose for a group photo session at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

Since its unveiling last week, the new cabinet of the government of Shinzo Abe has attracted no shortage of commentary. Analysis has ranged from the consequences for Japan’s foreign policy to the number of women in cabinet, yet perhaps the greatest attention has been paid to what the reshuffle says about who Japan’s future leader could be. Indeed, of particular note was the maneuvering of various figures and factions within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) vying to succeed Abe, whose third and perhaps final term as Japan’s leader expires in September 2021. One particularly insightful analysis highlighted Abe’s political skill in shoring up key party allies, shutting rivals out of the cabinet, and keeping so-called “bandwagoners” in limbo, favorably positioning his preferred successors while aiming to maximize party unity as the government doubles down on amending Article 9 of the Constitution. With the prospects for Abe’s favored foreign policy projects somewhat uncertain, constitutional revision is shaping up as his best bet of securing a legacy not only as Japan’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, but one who took Japan significantly closer to “normal” statehood. 

However, certain appointments in the new cabinet raise questions of another controversial government policy: Persistence with nuclear power. New Environment Minister Shinjirō Koizumi and Defence Minister Taro Kono are both regarded as frontrunners in the succession race, but have made names for themselves in the past with their public opposition to nuclear power. The Abe government threw its support behind the flagging nuclear industry after returning to power in December 2012, yet even with unswerving government support, the industry has struggled to recover its pre-disaster vitality. Most of Japan’s reactors remain offline pending safety clearances, and ongoing issues at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant continue to pose public relations challenges for the industry, unnerving local fishermen and Japan’s regional neighbors alike. Though the Abe government has generally managed to control the narrative over nuclear power, the positioning of both Koizumi and Kono for a shot at the prime ministership may draw the issue back into the spotlight. As I have noted in the past for The Diplomat, “[t]hough Abe’s successor would face an uphill battle against the entrenched vested interests protecting the nuclear industry, a leadership change in Tokyo could yet deliver a fatal blow” to Japan’s nuclear power industry.

At 38 years old and with only minimal experience behind him, Koizumi’s appointment to the cabinet was somewhat of a surprise. Yet it is precisely these factors which have so far worked in his favor. Koizumi’s youth, looks, populist rhetoric and media presence have won him many public admirers, and he has frequently topped opinion polls as the most popular choice for government leader, often ahead of Abe himself. Koizumi has not shied from criticizing government policies in the past, and is by no means an Abe loyalist — he in fact voted against the prime minister at the LDP presidential election last September. He has also benefited somewhat from the public’s admiration of his father, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who himself was regarded as a maverick and reformer. Some suggest that should Koizumi’s star continue its ascent, he may yet bypass some of the traditional requirements of political succession and leap-frog other established candidates to the top job. 

However, while Koizumi’s appointment as Environment Minister was initially interpreted as an attempt by the Abe government to tap his popularity, it is just as likely to be a political power play. It has been common practice throughout Abe’s tenure to saddle opponents or critics within the LDP with difficult tasks, including ministerial portfolios. The environment portfolio will place Koizumi in a difficult position between the practicalities of addressing Japan’s emissions challenges and his personal opposition to nuclear power. He also assumes the portfolio at a time when Fukushima is back in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Only days before the cabinet reshuffle, the government announced it was considering dumping thousands of tonnes of irradiated water from the crippled power plant into the Pacific Ocean, a move likely to invite domestic and international backlash.

However, given Koizumi’s unusual rise and his political pedigree, it may be too early to say whether the weight of ministerial responsibilities will force him to comply with party standards. Comments at his maiden news conference as Environment Minister suggested that he is not about to conform his personal beliefs to match government policy, at least not immediately: Koizumi stated that he “would like to study how we will scrap [nuclear power plants], not how to retain them.” One could speculate that these views had been steeled during his time as parliamentary vice-minister for the recovery of Tohoku — the region which bore the brunt of the triple disaster — and the sustained anti-nuclear activism of his father, who since the reshuffle has publicly expressed his hope that Koizumi pursue an end to Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy. However, for Koizumi to sustain his anti-nuclear position could produce policy inconsistencies across government. In fact, his press comments invited a swift rebuke from the newly installed Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), Isshu Sugawara. Sugawara acknowledged the “fears and risks about nuclear power,” but rejected the idea that a nuclear phase-out was possible, now or in the future. This disagreement effectively put the ministry overseeing Japan’s nuclear regulator — Koizumi’s environment ministry — at loggerheads which the ministry which sets energy policy — Sugawara’s METI. That Sugawara was by some accounts once an anti-nuclear advocate himself, but now toes the government line as a minister, may provide some indication of Koizumi’s likely trajectory on the issue — that is, if he continues to entertain prime ministerial ambitions.

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However, Koizumi is not the only successor candidate opposed to nuclear power. Taro Kono, the former foreign minister now in the defense portfolio, was often described as a maverick and reformist within the LDP, and was also outspoken in his opposition to nuclear power in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima disaster. At that time, Kono’s position on the backbench gave him a certain margin for autonomy and outspokenness. However, some claim that he toned down his criticism after being appointed as Japan’s top diplomat in August 2017. Like Koizumi this year, Kono’s promotion back then was viewed as a surprise choice, but may have been another example of an Abe power play. Indeed, Kono has largely toed the party line on nuclear power, and has frequently refused to discuss the matter as it is outside of his portfolio. Nevertheless, Kono has occasionally found ways to signal his views without explicitly breaching ministerial norms. For example, he used a speech in January 2018 to lament Japan’s lagging deployment of renewable energy sources, and criticized Japan’s prioritization of “keeping the status quo for fear of change.” The next month, the foreign minister’s advisory panel issued a report supporting that among other things underscored nuclear power as “a high-risk and uneconomical power source.” Kono’s position seemingly put him on a collision course with METI, the center of both energy policymaking and political support for nuclear power. In terms of Prime Ministerial pedigree, however, Kono’s demonstrable flexibility in keeping his personal views on the matter largely out of view reflects well on his candidacy for Prime Minister. Considering that his recent move to the defense portfolio was a lateral rather than vertical appointment, his ministerial experience and factional position should stand him in good stead come September 2021.

Ultimately, whether Koizumi or Kono could transform their personal beliefs into government policy is unclear, given the political dynamics and vested interests they would need to overcome. Notwithstanding their favorable public profiles, the latest reshuffle put checks on their aspirations for leadership both while boosting the standings of major competitors. Kono’s reformism may he complicate efforts to convince LDP conservatives to back him as Prime Minister, while Koizumi does not yet belong to a faction of his own and will need time to build influence and support. While there is no telling which way the loyalty of different LDP factions will fall in a post-Abe government, it will be crucial for either Kono or Koizumi to command the loyalty of a large enough majority of LDP lawmakers to gain and maintain broad support for their candidacy as prime minister, let alone for a controversial policy shift like abandoning atomic energy.

Tom Corben is a research assistant with the Foreign Policy and Defence division, at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.