(Updates with comments from Hosokawa in third paragraph.)
Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- More than two decades after a short- lived effort to shake up Japanese politics, Morihiro Hosokawa is taking another crack at a lasting legacy -- with a bid to permanently shutter the nation’s nuclear reactors in a challenge to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Hosokawa, a 76-year-old former prime minister, today kicked off his campaign for the Feb. 9 election for governor of Tokyo, a city with a population topping 13 million and an economy bigger than that of Indonesia. Raising the profile of the race, Hosokawa is backed by Junichiro Koizumi, 72, a former premier and one-time Abe ally who now lobbies against nuclear power.
“The myth that nuclear power is clean and safe has collapsed,” Hosokawa told reporters in Tokyo today. “We don’t even have a place to store nuclear waste. Without that, restarting the plants would be a crime against future generations.”
The mothballing of the nation’s 48 reactors after the Fukushima accident in March 2011 forced Japan to step up fuel imports, widening the current account deficit and hampering efforts to contain the world’s biggest debt. A victory in Tokyo, which produces about a fifth of Japan’s economic output, would hand Hosokawa a platform to oppose Abe’s efforts to restart the plants.
“With Hosokawa running, it puts nuclear power back on the agenda in a way they can’t take off,” said Steven Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. Abe’s coalition will suffer if the nuclear topic becomes a singular issue in the Tokyo race, he said. “They can’t win that one.”
Abe’s approval rating remained above 50 percent in recent opinion polls as his focus on reviving the economy helped boost confidence and lifted Japanese stocks 51 percent last year. Shifting attention back to the debate over a nuclear restart, opposed by more than 40 percent of people in Japan, may erode that support. There have been no polls released yet on the Tokyo governor race.
Hosokawa’s main opponent is Yoichi Masuzoe, 65, a former health minister who wrote a book on caring for his elderly mother. Masuzoe, who is backed by Abe’s ruling coalition, quit the Liberal Democratic Party in 2010 to set up a new group, which failed to gather much support.
“My gut feeling is that it will be pretty evenly balanced,” said Aiji Tanaka, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, of the governorship race. “I think Koizumi and Hosokawa are too old. However, Masuzoe is not all that popular and has been criticized for leaving the LDP.”
A victory for Hosokawa could increase the risk of a sharp rise in energy prices and cause stocks to fall, according to a Jan. 17 report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. If he succeeds in getting nuclear plants permanently mothballed, Japan’s record current account deficit would continue to widen, undermining confidence in the government’s ability to control a debt in excess of 200 percent of gross domestic product.
Without nuclear energy, power companies will be forced to pass increased costs to consumers, potentially lowering economic growth by 0.5-1.0 percentage points, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said. A Hosokawa victory could lead stocks to fall between 7 and 10 percent, it said.
While the Tokyo governor has little direct power to change nuclear policy, previous incumbents have used the post to sway the national agenda. Former governor Shintaro Ishihara’s campaign to buy islands disputed with China in the East China Sea islands and build on them forced then-prime minister Yoshihiko Noda to instruct the national government to purchase them in September 2012.
The move roiled ties with Asia’s biggest economy, sparking violent demonstrations in China and a slump in sales of Japanese automobiles in China.
“What happens to Tokyo has national implications,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus in Tokyo. “Tokyo is the center of Japan and whoever runs Tokyo has a platform to weigh in on national decisions.”
Media scrutiny of the race means even an unsuccessful campaign by Hosokawa could shift the national mood. A poll published Jan. 15 by national broadcaster NHK showed 42 percent of respondents opposed nuclear power, 21 percent supported it and 33 percent were undecided. NHK said it surveyed 1,066 people over three days from Jan. 11. No margin of error was given.
The son of a wartime prime minister with samurai heritage, Hosokawa is emerging from a 16-year retirement to seek the governorship. In 1993 he became the first premier from outside the dominant LDP in 38 years, winning on a platform of deregulation and ending political corruption. He stepped down months later over allegations of financial impropriety and quit politics in 1998, later making a name for himself as a potter.
Tokyo governors serve a four-year term and must gain the approval of the city’s assembly, dominated by Abe’s ruling coalition, to implement policy. The metropolitan government building is Tokyo’s second-tallest skyscraper and stands in Shinjuku, a few minutes’ walk from the Park Hyatt hotel featured in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation.” Both were designed by architect Kenzo Tange.
Abe’s government has played down its differences with Hosokawa, reiterating its plan to minimize the country’s dependence on nuclear power. Still, last week it approved a plan for Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. to rebuild its business that hinges on restarting the world’s largest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, in Niigata prefecture on the western coast of Japan.
--Editors: Andrew Davis, Rosalind Mathieson