Will Japan’s Largest Union Support Renewable Energy?

Akito Yoshikane

Demonstrators attend an anti-nuclear protest outside the Tokyo Eledctric Power Co (TEPCO) headquarters in Tokyo on August 2, 2011.

As Japan observed the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings this week, the country continues to grapple with the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Nearly five months after an earthquake and tsunami sparked the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, citizens, anti-nuclear groups, and government officials gathered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to push for renewable energy sources and nuclear non-proliferation.

With public anger mounting against TEPCO, the government’s bungled response and unraveling political scandals, a July poll showed that more than 70 percent of the country supports doing away with atomic power. That disaster and subsequent mass sentiment may have also caused Japan’s largest labor federation to reexamine its support for nuclear energy.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, also known as Rengo, said the country’s nuclear energy policy and the union’s support of it should be questioned going forward. At an anti-nuclear gathering last Thursday in Hiroshima, the union’s secretary general told reporters, We have to start discussions concerning nuclear energy from the beginning to decide what we should do in the future.”

The statement, as tepid as it is, was the first time since 2005 the union even addressed the issue. It is a follow up from May when the union decided to review its policy and freeze the promotion of nuclear energy.

That is a change from last August when the union promoted atomic power. There had been internal tension about taking an official position, but several unions affiliated under the Rengo umbrella are employed in the energy industry and successfully lobbied to promote nuclear power.

The confederation is also one of the largest supporters of the current ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and has gained favorable political policies in the past. TEPCO’s labor union belongs to the Federation of Electric Power Related Industry Workers’ Unions of Japan, which is a core member of Rengo.

A recent report found that unions working for electric companies donated over 100 million yen ($1.3 million dollars at the current exchange rate) to DPJ politicians from 2006 to 2009. In turn, electric company executives donated over 162 million yen ($2.1 million) to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the same period. Both workers and executives lobbied opposing parties with a mutual goal. Japan’s Kyodo News writes:

The labor unions mobilized their funds to support the DPJ while the management backed the LDP to achieve the common goal of securing political endorsement for nuclear power as an important energy source.”

As a result, DPJ’s political position also evolved. The DPJ had previously taken a cautious stance” on nuclear policy, but in 2006 the party wrote in a policy paper that it is an indispensable energy source.” By 2010, the party’s campaign manifesto sought to push exports of nuclear power plants.”

Officials have stepped back from their pro-nuclear stance in the wake of the triple disasters. The deeply unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan, of the DPJ, has expressed his desire to reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear energy with the goal of eliminating it in the future. But he faces political pressure from both parties to continue the status quo. Moreover, with calls for his resignation, he may not see a new energy policy through. Asahi writes that the calls to remove Kan may be tied to lobbying interests:

There are many lawmakers in both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party who have taken TEPCO money for years and feel obligated to protect the company’s interests.”

It remains to be seen how the government and the union will go forward, but a decision will be needed in the near future. Japan has one-third of its 54 reactors operating and is faced with power shortages. The reactors are scheduled for maintenance next May.

Still, the public has grown increasingly skeptical about the safety of nuclear power. Likewise, Rengo has also softened their stance. And if the past is any indication, they have the ability to shape policy. Whether their position will mirror public opinion or their own interests is something that will come to light in the near future.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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