New Challenges After Fukushima

Nuclear Energy, Critical Junctures and Regional Development Policies in Japan

Thomas Feldhoff, Department of Human Geography, Interdisciplinary Centre for East Asian Studies, Goethe University Frankfurt [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 1 (Article 5 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 24 May 2013.


The 11 March 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster will create long-term challenges for Japan. Energy shortage is a major threat because all facets of the archipelago’s economy and society are dependent upon a reliable energy supply and, most importantly, the nuclear disaster has shattered Japan’s nuclear safety myth. Within this context, the purpose of this paper is to explain how Japan has been consistently successful at siting controversial facilities, such as nuclear power plants, despite public concern about nuclear risk. Based on historical institutionalist concepts, it shows how the management of nuclear energy has led to “path dependence” and how the Fukushima disaster has created a “critical juncture” which could initiate a new way of managing energy — one that would also accommodate a new regional development regime. Giving local communities the opportunity to become more independent from top-down central government decision-making and to integrate the people into locally based development policy and planning processes may provide the impetus for Japan’s Energiewende — from a highly-centralised nuclear power dependent energy system to a more decentralised energy system, developing potential areas and sources of renewable energy for a non-nuclear future.

Keywords: nuclear energy, nuclear facility siting, path dependence and critical junctures, regional development, Fukushima, Japan.


On 11 March 2011 a low-probability, high consequence event devastated Japan’s Tōhoku region. The Great East Japan Earthquake (Higashi-Nihon Dai-shinsai) and tsunami, and the subsequent malfunctioning of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, mark a major turning point in the energy policies of European countries like Germany, Italy and Switzerland, who have all ended their commitments to nuclear power. What can be said, however, about the future of nuclear power in Japan itself? Is Japan now at a “critical juncture” from which development in the energy sector will move towards a new path looking beyond nuclear power? A recent article in the Guardian quoted an official report which said that the accident was a man-made disaster caused by poor regulation and collusion between the government, the operator and the industry’s watchdog (McCurry, 2012a). Indeed, the Japanese government has a long history of siding with industry in establishing policies and practices that have proven not beneficial or even outright harmful to the public good. The Ashio copper mine incident and the more recent Minamata and Itai-Itai diseases, as well as the Fukushima disaster, demonstrate a pattern of industrial pollution, reminding us that development and technological advancement can bring with them destruction in all areas of life. Public support for nuclear power has decreased dramatically since the nuclear crisis began and Japan’s nuclear industry and political elites are now being confronted by widespread public distrust and hostility. Inevitably this has consequences for the government’s ability to direct the energy preferences of citizens and to counteract local resistance to undesirable land usage.

It is within this context that this paper, based on previous research conducted on NIMBY-style conflicts over large-scale infrastructure projects and the nuclear power industry in Japan, analyses the traditional institutional framework of Japan’s nuclear energy policy and nuclear facility siting. The important questions are: why has Japan been consistently successful at the siting of controversial facilities like nuclear power plants since the 1960s, despite previous incidents and despite public concern about nuclear risk? How does the Japanese state act as a mediator on risk associated with nuclear power plants and what are the resulting spatial structures of the nuclear industry? What challenges does the decentralisation of negotiating authority from national and local governments to private energy companies and public corporations, who are the key players in the negotiation process and in allocating compensation to affected parties, pose for the state’s political legitimacy? And what are the long-term implications of the 11 March 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster with regard to Japan’s latent energy vulnerability?

Based on historical institutionalist concepts, this study shows how the management of nuclear energy has led to “path dependence” and how the Fukushima disaster has created a “critical juncture” which could initiate a new way of managing energy – one that would also accommodate a new regional development regime. Looking at the impact of the construction of nuclear facilities on regions, cities and communities, we see that the promotion of electric power generating facilities is a major element in Japan’s regional development policies – policies which are redistributive in nature but which have actually failed in their promises to reduce regional disparities. Thus, the key point is that the dynamic for change emerges from questions about the process of power plant siting; with a systematic and critical review of this process comes the potential for desperately needed regional development policy innovation. The paper concludes with recommendations for policy innovations suitable for transforming institutional constraints in regional development policy-making into opportunities for the formation of stronger and more resilient communities in rural Japan that are no longer dependent on central government’s ostensible benevolence. In this respect, the article also contributes to the on-going debate over the nature of state-society relations and the need for change in top-down planning culture in contemporary Japan (Sorensen and Funck, 2007).

Conceptual Framework

From a theoretical viewpoint, historical institutionalism and the concept of “critical junctures” may offer a vehicle for understanding the structural problems of Japan’s energy sector. Historical institutionalists define institutions as “the formal or informal procedures, routines, norms and conventions embedded in the organisational structure of the polity or political economy” (Hall and Taylor, 1996:938). As policies at any time are influenced by policy choices made in the past, and institutions have an explicit influence over those policies, historical institutionalism argues that the patterns, once created, will persist and thus create “path dependence” (Peters, Pierre and King, 2005). Insiders who have the authority and power to defend institutions create and preserve institutional stability and in the absence of pressures challenging the established institutional order, this path is likely to be followed because institutions are seen as relatively persistent features of a society. They provide “codes of appropriate behaviour, affective ties, and a belief in a legitimate order” (March and Olsen, 2005:9). Nevertheless, this theory does not hold that institutional change is not happening; institutions are not seen as static. Despite incremental processes of institutional change, historical development can be divided into periods of continuity punctuated by moments when profound institutional changes take place; these moments have been labelled “critical junctures” (Hall and Taylor, 1996:942). According to Pierson (2004:135), “junctures are ‘critical’ because they place institutional arrangements on paths or trajectories, which are then very difficult to alter.” In the context of the study of “path dependent” phenomena, Capoccia and Kelemen (2007:348) define critical junctures “as relatively short periods of time during which there is a substantially heightened probability that agents’ choices will affect the outcome of interest. (…) For a brief phase, agents face a broader than typical range of feasible options and the notion that their choices from among these options are likely to have a significant impact on subsequent outcomes.”

Against the background of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster one might argue that Japan is now at such a critical juncture with respect to the country’s public policy in the field of energy. But are Japan’s decisive actors really willing to steer development within the energy sector in a new direction based on a critical assessment of the available options? Or are they shaped and guided by powerful vested interests deeply embedded in the structures of the Japanese state? It is well known that, despite being the only country to have suffered the devastating effects of nuclear weapons during World War Two, Japan has embraced the peaceful use of nuclear technology to provide a substantial proportion of its energy supply. Since the 1970s, nuclear energy has become a national strategic priority because Japan is highly dependent on energy imports. The oil shocks provided the key impetus for heavy nuclear energy investments, pushed forward by the “nuclear village”, a network of public and private sector actors who mutually agreed on prioritising nuclear power (DeWit, 2011; Nakase, 2008). According to data provided by the World Nuclear Association (WNA, available online at, Japan ranks among the worldwide top ten countries that rely on nuclear power for electricity generation. The new “Basic Energy Plan” (Enerugī kihon keikaku), published by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in June 2010, included plans for the construction of nine new reactors by 2020 and more than fourteen new reactors by 2030 (METI, 2010). Although the importance of nuclear energy has become widely accepted among the general public, in many cases local residents have opposed the construction of nuclear facilities in their community, exhibiting the NIMBY - “Not in my backyard” - response. Local outbreaks of NIMBY confrontations and public opposition to restarting the nuclear reactors across the country may eventually result in “a continually deteriorating relationship between society as a whole and the institutional structures that support it” (Black and Siroky 1994, 389).

The acronym NIMBY was coined by American planners in the 1970s and exported to Europe and elsewhere to refer to the protectionist motivations of project opponents at grassroots level. The motivation is to keep facilities that meet the basic needs of society out of one’s own neighbourhood due to their negative side-effects (Inhaber, 1998:1; Rui, 2001:192). The “Not in my backyard” field is rich in abbreviations referring to the same basic challenge: how to ensure the smooth operation of the facility-siting process. LULUs - ‘Locally unwanted land uses’ - is the generic term for all the facilities that lead to NIMBY opposition. More directly linked to the political dimension is the acronym NIMTOO, ‘Not in my term of office’, which is used by elected officials confronted by a NIMBY problem to postpone a decision until their retirement from office. For those who are unalterably opposed to undesirable facilities, at any time or place and under any conditions, the acronyms NIABA, ‘Not in anybody’s backyard’, and NOPE, ‘Not on Planet Earth’, are used (Inhaber, 1998:2-3).

The siting of NIMBY facilities is often controversial because they involve potential risks for local residents: negative impact on public health, as well as economic, environmental or toxic risks. Antagonistic groups such as government authorities, industry, environmentalists and local citizens are involved in the siting process and these groups all have very different perceptions of such risks. As Inhaber (1998:26) puts it, “if there is one gong that resonates through the NIMBY battles, it is that, ultimately, the perception of risk may be more important than its calculation.” Past research has provided evidence that the state’s inability to take individuals seriously regarding their choosing to accept or reject a risk and to conduct dialogue with the citizens to resolve the impasse in siting facilities is one of the most important reasons for the failure to site new facilities (Gerrard, 1994; Rabe, 1994:4). Acceptable risk, for citizens (as insiders), is not primarily a matter of the facts that are put forward by scientists or government officials (as outsiders) to explain the need for a specific project. It is more a matter of morality and the health of their family and friends (Mazmanian and Morell, 1992:184). What creates public opposition and NIMBYism is, according to Gerrard (1994:99-106), dread, intrusion, mistrust and despair among the affected local people who consider the risk-benefit balance unfavourable. “In effect”, as Black and Siroki (1994:389) point out, “NIMBYism appears to snowball, creating a growing chasm between the regulators and the regulated”, causing a fatal loss of trust in the nuclear authorities.

Nuclear energy facility siting: From NIMBY to YIMBY

With regard to nuclear energy use in Japan, the Japanese state has developed a range of strategies to promote what government authorities define as the “national interest” above what critics have labelled “local egoism” (Aldrich, 2005:112). With regard to those strategies that have helped the electric power companies to site nuclear power plants, Lesbirel (2003) refers to the acronym YIMBY, ‘Yes, in my backyard’. YIMBY efforts, which are a major policy implication of NIMBY actions in Japan, have to address questions of dispute management and interest mediation, information asymmetries associated with differences in bargaining power within the context of differing perceptions of risk. Insufficient or imperfect knowledge of reality is a prime concern of any human being living in a dangerous and incomprehensible world. Humans thus have a strong incentive to reduce ambiguity. Despite the use of direct financial compensation, the principal means of achieving this is the creation of institutions, in the sense of formal and informal rules, including mechanisms to enforce them, institutions that help to bridge “the gap in understanding, perspective, and trust between siting proponents and opponents and, presumably, appreciably enhance acceptance of the needed facilities” (Mazmanian and Morell, 1992:188).

The Japanese state has been very successful in creating such ‘Yes, in my backyard’ institutions, based on the “nuclear safety myth” put forward by the “nuclear village”. Central and local governments, in close collaboration with the energy companies, have developed a highly sophisticated system for negotiation and mediation regarding nuclear power related risks, a system which is flexible and adaptive enough to reduce the potential negative impact of NIMBY gridlock (Lesbirel, 2003, Aldrich, 2005, 2008). The first element of the YIMBY system is continuous support for the development of host communities. This is about providing incentives to reward communities, which are willing to accept electric power plants. The central government has delegated responsibility for direct negotiations with local communities about specific power plant sitings to newly set-up government organisations and energy companies who are willing, and able, to buy off resistance – although it should be noted that the state has always maintained jurisdiction over the nuclear energy sector (Aldrich, 2005). The second element of the YIMBY system is the provision of pro-nuclear energy information. The government has developed campaigns to promote nuclear energy as a safe and reliable contributor to the country’s energy security and has thereby penetrated, and even paralysed, civil society. The government, in cooperation with the private companies, has continuously worked on improving its tools and strategies for addressing the constantly changing interests and concerns of citizens in order to pre-empt potential resistance and to reduce the uncertainties of host community bargaining.

By continuous support we are referring to the government’s follow-through support of host communities and communities adjacent to those host communities, even after completion of the construction project (see ANRE, 2011). It was in 1974 that the Japanese government formally institutionalised previously ad hoc support with the establishment of a set of three interrelated laws, known as Dengen sanpō, an abbreviation for the Three Power Source Development Laws. Based on incentives for host communities, the goal was to promote the establishment of electric power plants and the utilisation of other energy types as alternatives to oil. As nuclear power development is seen as part of the strategy to further power source diversification, communities are compensated for taking on the potential risks associated with the construction and operation of power plants. Gerrard (1994:126) addressed the question of morality in the case of this kind of risk-benefit trade-off and concluded “moral problems are amplified when money is offered to low-income communities.” This exactly describes what has happened in the Japanese case.

Under the Power Development Promotion Tax Law (Dengen kaihatsu sokushin zei hō), a national tax levied on the sales of electricity by electric power companies was introduced. The service provider charges the electricity consumer tax to all users at the current rate of 375 Yen per 1,000 kWh. The revenue is channelled through the Special Account for Electric Power Development Acceleration Measures (Dengen kaihatsu sokushin taisaku tokubetsu kaikei), and distributed among hosting communities according to the regulations of the Law on the Development of Areas Adjacent to Electric Power Plants (Hatsuden yō shisetsu shūhen chiiki seibi hō) (ANRE, 2011). To allocate benefits to current and potential nuclear power plant host communities, the central government created new organisations, including the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE, Shigen enerugī chō), the Japan Industrial Location Centre (Nihon ritchi sentā), the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI) and the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) which merged into the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA, Nihon genshiryoku kenkyū kaihatsu kikō) in October 2005, and the Center for Development of Power Supply Regions (Dengen chiiki shinkō sentā). They act as a clearing house for information on Japan’s civil nuclear energy programme and the specific benefits for host communities, they assist host communities with industrial promotional activities and they are involved in the bargaining process between private utility companies and local communities (Aldrich, 2005:123-124). In their case study of Kaminoseki city, Dusinberre and Aldrich (2011:700-701) highlight the fact that the local elites play an important role in facilitating this process because ordinary members of the community look to their local political and societal leaders when determining their attitudes towards proposed NIMBY facilities. The Center for Development of Power Supply Regions plays a key role in the nuclear energy sector. It is a public benefit corporation (ippan zaidan hōjin) controlled by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (currently the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, METI) and focuses its activities exclusively on nuclear power plant siting, i.e. through the execution of the Three Power Source Development Laws.

Figure 1 shows the front cover of the guidance pamphlet on the Three Power Source Development Laws depicting their use as a tool for local revitalisation. In the beginning, subsidies were only offered for “hard” infrastructural projects like bridges and roads, but over time the system allowed local governments to spend the money on “urban” infrastructures like car parks, commerce halls, gyms or cultural and concert halls and nowadays the programme even includes completely “soft” investments such as developing job skills and providing publicity or local branding to encourage industry relocations. More than 25 categories and sub-categories of funds available to host communities have been introduced since 1974; many of these are only available to nuclear power plant hosting communities. As of April 2012, 710 municipalities, or 40 % of all Japanese municipalities, were identified as regions where electric power plants are situated and as such have received subsidies for hosting power facilities, be it those currently in the planning stages, under construction or in operation (data provided online by the Center for Development of Power Supply Regions at This includes a vast number of small communities in rural and peripheral areas fearing, or already experiencing, economic and demographic decline.

Figure 1. Cover of the Guidance Pamphlet for the Three Power Source Development Laws Depicting Their Utilization for Local Revitalization

Feldhoff, Figure 1

Source: ANRE, 2000

The system of continuous support for the development of host communities fits overall with Japan’s “construction state” system. Powerful politicians of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in collaboration with ministerial bureaucrats overseeing government spending, direct public money to construction and other firms in their constituencies and thereby win votes and advance their careers within the party (see Aldrich, 2005:119; Feldhoff, 2005). The fact that former METI elite bureaucrats accept senior positions in private-sector companies in industries they previously oversaw, well known as the practice of amakudari (the “descent from heaven”), has been widely criticised for creating corrupt relationships. For the political parties, a large share of their campaign financing comes from domestic industry, including electric power companies. For many decades, this so-called “iron triangle” of major actors was considered to be a symbol of the country’s economic prosperity. However, with the revelation of illegal practices and abuse, the system of give-and-take partnership networks threw Japan’s democracy into crisis. The concomitant corruption, maladministration and substantial waste of public money have seriously undermined the Japanese public’s faith in the country’s elites (McCormack, 2005). The main political consequence was that the year 2009 saw the end of the long-standing LDP rule in the country. There were considerable hopes that the construction state’s stranglehold on regional development policy would change now that Japan has a centre-left government under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) (Matanle, Rausch and the Shrinking Regions Research Group, 2011:240). However, fears that spending cuts would foster voter disenchantment with the DPJ has in fact led to an astonishing stability of regional development planning and policies – and an astonishing stability of the actor network which was frequently referred to in the media as the “nuclear village” in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. A recent article in the Guardian quoted a report compiled by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission: “The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators, and TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Corporation], and the lack of governance by said parties” (McCurry, 2012a).

ANRE (2011) calculations show that the value of subsidies for host communities is considerable, particularly in relation to the rather small size of the local economies. However, the Three Power Source Development Laws have created a “path dependent” system known in Japanese as genpatsu izon sho or “nuclear power plant addiction” (Onitsuka, 2011). Local governments are provided with the highest value subsidies for a period of only seven years during the construction work. After the plant goes into operation, the value of the subsidies is drastically reduced. In addition, the statutory life of the local property tax on a nuclear power plant is capped at fifteen years and the tax revenues are halved between the first year and the fifth year.

The problem with local infrastructure and public facilities built with central government subsidies is that long-term operation and maintenance costs create a heavy financial burden on local governments. This means that they rely heavily on a continuous influx of subsidies and there is a great deal of financial pressure to invite the energy companies to build additional reactors (see also Lesbirel, 2003). Consequently, the Japanese central government’s strategy has resulted in a “culture of dependence” (Aldrich, 2012:5) and in a specific spatial pattern in its nuclear energy sector: nuclear siting is mainly based on the expansion of existing sites, not on the development of new ones. We therefore see high concentrations or clusters of nuclear power plants in Fukui and Fukushima Prefectures, a phenomenon called the “Nuclear Ginza” (Genpatsu Ginza), alluding to the famous shopping strip in central Tokyo (see Figure 2). Thanks to massive government and industry investment, the village of Rokkasho in the north-eastern Aomori Prefecture has developed into the country’s leading nuclear industry cluster, hosting a mixed oxide fuel fabrication plant, a uranium enrichment plant and the country’s largest nuclear fuel reprocessing plant (Rokkasho kakunenryō saishori shisetsu) owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL).

Figure 2. Electric Power Generation Capacities of Nuclear Power Plants and Locations of Other Nuclear Facilities in Japan, 2011

Feldhoff, Figure 2

Data source: World Nuclear Association, Agency for Natural Resources and Energy

In conclusion, rewarding communities based on the Three Power Source Development Laws (Dengen sanpō) has been a very powerful incentive, but the concentration of nuclear power plants also has to do with changes in risk perception. Research has demonstrated that public trust in controversial facilities increases with greater proximity to and familiarity with these facilities (Rabe, 1990). Nuclear power plants operating smoothly, generating local property tax income, employment, discounts on electricity bills in combination with vast amounts of public subsidy, also increases local identification with the nuclear power plant and raises the willingness of communities to accept further expansion of the existing site – and to run even more risks due to the lack of concerns and fears and the lowered perception of risk (Lowrance, 1976; Gerrard, 1994:111). The locally subjective assessment of the probability of a specified type of accident happening is changing. Citizens are starting to embrace the normalcy of life near plants and risk concerns are diminishing in light of the impact of local development linked to the energy sector.

Lesbirel (2003) provides evidence that community concern about risks associated with nuclear plants and quality of life issues increases in line with income. This suggests that siting approval is more likely in lower income communities because these communities place more value on the economic and other benefits associated with hosting those facilities. It is therefore not surprising that the promotion of nuclear power plant construction has become closely connected to regional development policies as they are seen as a vehicle for economic growth.

Apart from financial incentives, central government has been very successful in overcoming anti-nuclear sentiment and local NIMBY resistance through highly sophisticated public relations efforts and constant messages of reassurance regarding long-term government commitment to the solely civil use of nuclear energy and its safety. The institutionalised activities which aim to direct citizens’ energy preferences and to counteract locally unwanted land usage include the following (see Aldrich 2005, 2008; Sumihara, 2003): from early on, ministry officials visit targeted local communities and give talks to the people emphasising the importance of nuclear power for national energy security and energy price stability. In order to enhance identification with the national strategy to promote nuclear energy, from 1964 onwards the Japanese government established a “Nuclear Energy Day” to be celebrated annually on 26 October. This includes poster competitions organised by central government authorities (Figure 3) and has proved to be an important element in constructing a new Japanese identity as a civil nuclear power nation. In the 1980s, the government even introduced a “Citation Ceremony for Electric Power Sources Siting Promoters” (Dengen ritchi sokushin kōrōsha hyōshō). The Prime Minister rewards those local government officials who have actively assisted the nation in meeting national energy security goals by supporting energy facility siting. As early as the 1970s, central government also began establishing branch offices and atomic energy centres in targeted host localities, allowing for the exchange of information and opinion between government officials and local citizens. Nowadays, every nuclear power plant in Japan has its own visitor centre. Other educational activities, which provide information for people in order to reduce fears and build trust, are developed and delivered by the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization (JAERO, Nihon genshiryoku bunka shinkō zaidan), another public benefit corporation under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy. It organises tours and trips for citizens and pupils to operating nuclear power plants, offers free classes and seminars in schools and public facilities, develops educational materials on nuclear energy for school syllabuses (Figure 4), organises essay contests and other activities at a national level and provides information to local decision-makers who decide whether or not to welcome a nuclear power plant into their community. It is noteworthy in this context that the government has frequently stressed the importance of nuclear power in meeting its reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 3. Winners of “Nuclear Energy Day Poster Competitions” Organised by Central Government Authorities

Feldhoff, Figure 3

Note: Left: Winner of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Award in the 15th Nuclear Energy Day poster competition Miharu Imao (12 years old, Shizuoka). Right: Winner of the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Award in the 15th Nuclear Energy Day poster competition, Chika Kusanagi (14 years old, Miyagi). Source: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry,

Figure 4. Comic Book Format of Nuclear Energy Related Educational Material

Feldhoff, Figure 4

Source: Book cover photographs by the author

Government organisations have continuously worked to improve their strategies in order to better cope with their challengers and to adapt to changing public opinion. The goal was to retain hegemonic control over public discourse in order to pre-empt potential resistance and to reduce the uncertainties of host community bargaining. Well-funded policy instruments are the basis of the redistributive facility siting scheme, thus building almost insurmountable institutional walls to civil action against the state’s nuclear energy programme. This might well partly explain why a nationwide anti-nuclear movement in Japan did not exist before the Fukushima disaster.

Prospects for Japan’s energy security: Fukushima as a “critical juncture”?

The 11 March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster shattered Japan’s nuclear-dependent energy policy. The long-term consequences of the Fukushima nuclear crisis have not yet been fully predicted, but the time has come for a political re-evaluation of the costs and benefits of this high-risk technology. Concerns about the future of nuclear power in Japan, electricity supply shortages and cost increases are growing across the country, reinforcing debates about Japan’s energy vulnerability and the effectiveness of the traditional facility siting policies.

With rising energy demand worldwide, energy security is becoming an increasing concern for Japan and its East Asian neighbours. Total primary energy consumption in the East Asian economies of Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan already amounts to more than a quarter of the world’s total. Energy security issues, including the security of supply and stable or at least predictable pricing, are directly linked not only to economic growth and welfare but also to territorial disputes and the stability of political systems. In Japan, the rise of China’s economic and military power is a source of considerable concern and there is high political awareness of the risks resulting from the looming key resources shortages and competition over access to these resources. Energy security is therefore related to the potential vulnerability of rising resource supply dependence, the security of access to resources and the risk of supply interruptions and price manipulation. The increasing influence of new leading actors in international relations could create new tensions in international energy-related power politics in the coming years. This is the larger context within which Japan’s responses to the nuclear energy issue must be placed.

The question is whether Japan is now at a critical juncture and whether development paths in the energy sector are now moving in a new direction – without nuclear power. Observers report that a civil society that has for decades appeared weak has now woken up and started to challenge the information given them by government authorities (e.g. Slater, Nishimura and Kindstrand, 2012). Aldrich (2012:7-9) refers to increasing citizen activism and “citizen science” as a new form of (often web-based) participation by ordinary residents as volunteers in data collection and analysis. Public support for nuclear power has decreased dramatically since the nuclear crisis began and Japan’s nuclear industry and political elites are now facing widespread public concern about reactor safety, radiation hazards and the competencies and trustworthiness of the nuclear technocracy. Critics refer to the limited prospects for nuclear power, especially in light of the high construction costs for power plants, the considerable safety risks at all stages of the production process, the unresolved long-term storage of its wastes, the potential security risks stemming from proliferation, the limited availability of useful fissile material and the potential marginalisation of host communities (summarised from Sovacool, 2011: Chapter 8). Sovacool (2011) argues that it is investments in renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency which will enhance energy security.

There is at least some evidence that the Japanese government’s commitment to nuclear energy, deeply embedded in national and local policies, is now under scrutiny. In fact, the Science Council of Japan (2011) published a report in September 2011 on alternative energy scenarios showing a range of feasible options for Japan’s energy future with less or no nuclear energy. Apart from the cost-benefit view of the feasibility of implementing six different energy-mixing strategies, the Council demands that political leaders, alongside the general public, establish a long-term vision for Japan’s energy future. Masayoshi Son, the founder and chief executive of Japan's internet and mobile provider, Softbank Corporation, and Chair of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (Shizen enerugī zaidan), has already outlined a vision for the future of creating an “East Japan Solar Belt” to provide the country with plentiful solar and wind energy (Son, 2011). A government vision that is leading the way to a clean energy future, however, is still the defining desideratum in post-Fukushima Japan. Recent government decisions to continue nuclear power reactor construction projects directly contradict announcements to phase out nuclear power by the late 2030s – a deadline recommended by a cabinet panel that was dropped by the Japanese government in September 2012 amid pressure from powerful business and industry lobbies (McCurry, 2012b).

Doubts also remain over the transparency of information in the nuclear energy sector and it is noteworthy that no public discussion has yet taken place on the subject of changing the Three Power Source Development Laws (Dengen sanpō) (Aldrich, 2012:10). Instead, the Tokyo Shinbun reported that the Japanese government has increased the amount of subsidies for host communities with new or additional nuclear reactors (Tokyo Shinbun, 2011). As the state already channels about six billion Euros annually through this system (according to author’s calculations based on ANRE, 2011), stakeholders have a strong interest in keeping spending at a constantly high level. This vividly illustrates that the government’s ostensible benevolence towards regional communities has an underlying motive: preserving the status quo of the existing economic and political structures. The decision to restart two reactors at the Ōi nuclear power plant in Fukui prefecture in July 2012 is another indicator that Japan is unlikely to completely abandon nuclear energy any time soon (Fackler, 2012).

Fukushima is a disaster on a monumental scale whose far-reaching impact will be felt for decades to come. Whether the strong nuclear power lobby will prevail remains to be seen. Japan’s government plans to formulate a new energy policy by early 2013 and it is now open for discussion whether a nuclear phase-out on the 2030 horizon is an economically viable option, popular enough to become a permanent feature in Japan’s energy future. In light of the concept of “path dependence”, one could equally well assume that after a period of intense negotiation and reassurance, the existing compensation and information system will be further elaborated to regain hegemony over the public discourse on nuclear energy. Indeed, path dependence leads us to expect an incremental process of institutional change with only minor adjustments in the nuclear industry sector: first and foremost, the costs of a major move towards alternative, renewable energy technologies are massive and put additional pressure on public finances in times of severe economic stress and high public debt, not forgetting the need to finance the reconstruction of communities in the Tōhoku region, devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Previous METI forecasts suggest the prospects are poor. According to the 2009 government report “Outlook of long-term energy demand (recalculation)”, under the best-case scenario for capacity expansion, the share of renewable energy in primary energy supply is projected to be 9.0 % by 2020 and 11.6 % by 2030 (METI, 2009). Secondly, emission reduction and climate change mitigation policies will be adversely affected if electricity produced from nuclear energy is permanently replaced with electricity produced in fossil fuel-fired thermal power plants. Table 1 illustrates how a decrease in the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power led to a year-on-year 44.6 % increase in thermal power generation from April 2011 to April 2012. What we are currently observing is that Japan’s imports of liquefied natural gas in particular are growing, but this is very costly. Rising energy costs will have adverse impacts on the competitiveness of Japan’s industry and the nation’s balance of trade. Other fossil energy resources are also problematic with regard to carbon dioxide emissions and renewed questions about global availability and the level of international competition over access to resources, particularly with China. Finally, a major source of resistance arises from vested interests in the status quo, the energy sector having been regionally monopolised by vertically integrated companies called “general electric utilities” (nine established in 1951 and ten from 1972), backed by informal networks of still powerful actors (DeWit, 2011, 2012). The decisive actors of the “nuclear village” are eager to manoeuvre through the current phase of institutional fluidity in a way they believe will serve their interests in retaining their power.

Table 1. Total electricity generated and purchased across the 10 companies in April 2012
Power generated and purchased (MWh) 70,992,012 2.7
Generated by source (MHh) Hydro 6,139,847 28.0
Thermal 52,571,800 44.6
Nuclear 679,692 - 96.0
New energy etc. 227,043 16.4
Purchased (MWh) 11,815,745 8.3
Power for pumped-storage hydro (MWh) -442,115 78.7
Nuclear Capacity Factor (%)* 2.0 50.9

* Including Japan Atomic Power Company figures

Source: FEPC (2012)

So there are some arguments that are in favour of nuclear energy as a so-called “bridge technology” that helps to avoid energy supply shortages and price shocks until alternative forms of energy catch on in the market. In the meantime, integrated, predictable and targeted policies providing new incentives are needed to successfully develop renewable energy industry alternatives. DeWit (2012) highlights the July 1, 2012 introduction of the feed-in tariff as a major step to encourage the diffusion of renewable power capacity through guaranteed markets and process. Promoting energy efficiency and encouraging energy-saving behaviour could also significantly help to reduce the country’s energy vulnerability and its reliance on nuclear power; the government is already actively promoting actions for energy saving (ANRE, 2012). The nuclear energy lobby has always been very powerful in influencing public discourse and politics. The persistence of the anti-nuclear movement and a more critical role for the domestic mass media are therefore important factors in deeply embedding nuclear issues into the larger public discourse and preventing the nuclear industry from returning to business as usual too soon.

A new energy paradigm: New directions in regional development and planning policies

If Japan were to seize on the Fukushima disaster as a critical juncture that blazes the trail to a new energy future with a less centralized renewables-based energy regime, new opportunities to fundamentally reform regional development and planning policies could arise. Abandoning power plant siting as a means of development should be a central element of any reform. The reduced dependency of rural areas on external investment and their reduced vulnerability in the face of external decision-making could help to strengthen the empowerment of local communities by providing them with control over their development paths and projects. Gerrard (1994:130) hints at the insufficient bargaining power of low-income communities in siting decision-making processes because they are hoping for economic development. But how do we move forward in making the recipients of top-down central government donations more independent of traditional authorities and the vicious cycle of subsidies and compensation?

Bryden (2010) suggested that giving local communities the opportunity to capture the profit from public goods as well as private assets could improve both prospects for local livelihoods and quality of life. Experience from a number of European countries shows that community ownership of assets can be an important means of facilitating local engagement, fostering attachment to local places and thereby strengthening rural community resilience. This is most important regarding the domestic energy supply when countries are deciding to move from highly centralised to more decentralised energy systems, relying on more renewable energy sources and less nuclear energy. That is why Tetsunari Iida, Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a non-profit and independent research institute which focuses on sustainable energy policies, in a contribution to the Toshi Mondai Journal called for a “reform from the regions” (chiiki kara no henkaku), i.e. the development of local, community-based renewable energy (Iida 2008:79-80). Rural communities should abandon the expectation of externally induced revitalisation and concentrate on asset-based community development. That implies a fundamental shift from concentrating on local deficiencies to concentrating on local assets and capacities and from community marginalisation to community strengthening through fully integrating the people into locally-based development policy and planning processes. This concept is not in fact new but could gain some new momentum to reconfigure state-society relations to more closely suit the needs of communities. In Building Communities from the Inside Out, Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) summarised lessons learned by studying successful community-building initiatives in hundreds of neighbourhoods across the U.S. They sketched out a community-building path which is asset-based, internally focused and relationship driven.

Certainly, two of the major challenges for communities are to define what the common “community interest” is, because local communities are more diverse than popularly assumed, and to bring communities together in inclusive partnerships, because different people have different community attachments. According to Woods (2010), this requires a model of reflexive development. This involves community leaders and other actors building a collective understanding of community assets and their potential, together agreeing ways to make use of them and then repeatedly reporting back to the community and reflecting on progress. It is very much about engaging with and understanding the community and learning as a community in order to challenge traditional technocratic decision-making and to foster bottom-up problem-solving competence. This policy approach is, of course, a major challenge to Japan’s basically paternalistic state-society relations, which are traditionally shaped from the top down. As Japan’s spatial planning policy system evolved within Japan’s modern nation-state building process after the Meiji Restoration (1868), the authoritarian government also used planning to demonstrate the power of the national elite (Shibata, 2008). This has left a lasting legacy on state-society relations. Reflexive development policies require local communities to become more independent from central government influence and to integrate the people into locally-based development policy and planning processes, into exploring and developing potential areas and sources of renewable energy for the future. Yet this is very much in contrast to former government programmes which were not centred on a participatory holistic approach but rather on central government dictation of community priorities. Moreover, renewable energy continues to be largely ignored as a regional development option for rural areas (Bryden, 2010:23).

National politics thus remain important for setting new priorities and securing supportive policies for renewable energy capacity expansion at the community level and community asset groups have to organise themselves to engage effectively with government bodies. This requires mechanisms for inclusive planning and governance and for stable structures and partnerships. The greatest opportunity is the community-driven development of multifunctional communities from the bottom up, supporting a widened employment base with higher economic activity rates to attract people – and setting rural Japan free from the culture of dependence which is deeply embedded in the system of domestic power sourcing and regional development. Building this new social contract requires a fundamental re-calibration of state-society relations in the context of Japan’s challenge to create an Energiewende — a successful transformation of its energy system.


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About the Author

Dr Thomas Feldhoff is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Human Geography and Academic Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Centre for East Asian Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt. His academic background is in Human Geography and language-based East Asian Area Studies with a focus on Japan. In 2004, he completed his post-doctoral thesis (Habilitation) on “Japan’s Construction Lobby Activities and their Implications for Regional Development”. He received the 2006 JaDe Award of the Association for the Promotion of Japanese-German Cultural Relations and a 2008 Book Prize of the European Association for Japanese Studies (EAJS) for his publication Bau-Lobbyismus in Japan. His current research focus is on the political economy of energy, energy security, the influences of policy frameworks and institutional structures, public involvement, community empowerment and conflict management in facility siting processes.

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