Japan's former premier takes anti-nuclear campaign to Davos
TOKYO—Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan returns to the world stage this week, part of a campaign to reinvent himself as a global antinuclear activist nearly a year after he oversaw his government's widely criticized handling of the Fukushima Daiichi accident.
"I would like to tell the world that we should aim for a society that can function without nuclear energy," he said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, previewing his speech scheduled for Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Mr. Kan was last in the spotlight in August, when he tendered his resignation as prime minister barely a year after taking office, and just over five months after the March 11 tsunami triggered the Fukushima meltdowns. He was forced out by the parliamentary opposition and by critics inside his own ruling party, who blasted his handling of the accident and, more generally, his strong-willed, improvisational style of governing.
Japan runs through prime ministers so quickly—Mr. Kan is one of six men to have held the title in the past five years—that former ones rarely wield influence domestically or internationally. But Mr. Kan is betting he can break the mold, by reverting to his prelegislative career as a civic activist. Before entering Parliament in 1980, he worked as an advocate for affordable housing for Tokyo's long-suffering salarymen.
"People tell me that I've gone back to my roots," he said in the interview, his first with a non-Japanese news organization since leaving office. "I'm pouring most of my time and energy into promoting renewable energy, and I'm having a great time," he added.
Mr. Kan has been traveling the world. On a recent trip to Spain and Germany, his alternative-energy inspection tour included visiting solar-energy control centers. As he talked of energy-efficient building codes and described a visit to a Japanese biomass community project, flipping through PowerPoint printouts, the 65-year-old Mr. Kan flashed a youthful smile—an expression he rarely showed during his tumultuous administration.
While his successor, Yoshihiko Noda, is pushing to restart closed reactors in Japan and to promote Japanese nuclear-reactor exports to countries such as Vietnam and Turkey, Mr. Kan is now pursuing an alternative-energy agenda, hoping to use his connections to make headway. "I think we should aim to create a world in which people do not need to depend on nuclear energy, and it would be ideal if Japan can become a model country for the world," he said.
In some ways, it is a likely end to what had been an unlikely career. In a political rags-to-riches tale, Mr. Kan won his first national election on his fourth grass-roots campaign bid as a member of the smallest opposition party at the time. But the issues raised then by a leftist activist-turned-politician of a miniparty went unheeded as Japan made the transition from its breakneck postwar growth to the bubble economy, protected by an iron triangle of big business, the nation's bureaucracy and the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled continuously since 1955.
"We used to talk about defeating the LDP, to eliminate the bureaucrat-led, special-interest politics," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a Hokkaido University political-science professor and longtime friend of Mr. Kan. "It sounded like a dream back then. No way did I think that he'd be premier one day."
Early in his career, Mr. Kan developed an interest in renewable energies, and he still proudly shows a fading picture of himself as a young, long-haired legislator visiting a Colorado wind farm. He discussed wind power during a parliamentary session in 1982, drawing a rebuke from the then-minister of science and technology, who, according to the legislative transcript, chided him: "Don't use it as a reason to reject nuclear power; don't get too excited or carried away."
Mr. Kan recalled that exchange with bemusement, saying nuclear power wasn't even part of that discussion. He said the official's reflexive response demonstrated the ruling government's obsession with the technology. At the time, Japan was still recovering from the oil crises of the 1970s, and nuclear power was emerging as the alternative to foreign oil.
As Mr. Kan rose to power, he came to embrace the national consensus that Japan should ramp up its use of nuclear energy.
Mr. Kan said that as a young politician, he believed atomic power was only a transitional energy source. But "as our party grew in size, many of us began to see nuclear power as a safe power that should be more aggressively utilized," he said.
By the time his Democratic Party of Japan wrested control from the LDP in a historic 2009 victory, the new government had adopted the LDP's pro-nuclear policy, promising to build 14 new nuclear reactors by 2030. Nuclear power was repackaged as clean energy, becoming the centerpiece of the DPJ's plan to cut carbon emissions by 25%, in relation to Japan's 1990 output levels, by 2020.
March 11 changed that. Mr. Kan had to make gut-wrenching decisions, including rejecting a request from Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. to pull workers back from the increasingly dangerous reactors. "It was the first time since World War II that a Japanese leader was asking people to risk their lives," he said.
In his mind, he said, he simulated an worst-case evacuation scenario that included the 35 million people in the Tokyo metropolitan area. "Not only would we lose up to half of our land, but spread radiation to the rest of the world," he said. "Our existence as a sovereign nation was at stake."
"Just when he reached the peak, an accident that questioned his very core erupted," said veteran lawmaker Satsuki Eda, a Kan ally for three decades.
Four months after the accident, Mr. Kan used the bully pulpit of the premiership to declare that he was revising Japan's energy policy, aiming eventually to rid the country of all its nuclear-power plants.
He called the technology's risks impossible to contain. The announcement surprised his own cabinet ministers, who were notified of the decision only hours beforehand, and shocked a political system in which consensus-building skill is prized.
Even onetime close allies within the ruling party questioned Mr. Kan's competence in handling the accident and his response—blaming his impetuous style for aggravating the costly chaos.
"Mr. Kan is a skillful politician when on the offensive, forcefully breaking through and overcoming barriers—but crisis management and day-to-day communication with the public is not an offensive skill," said Yukio Edano, Mr. Kan's chief spokesman during the height of the crisis, told reporters last month.
Mr. Kan remains unapologetic: "A large part of people's criticism against me was that I acted spontaneously or just off the top of my head. But for me, that's a positive thing. If you're not inspired, you can't act."
Now, unfettered by the burdens of office, he has more freedom to act. "He's finally back to his normal self," said Mr. Eda.