Japan’s 2012 National Debate on Energy and Environment Policy

Unprecedented but Short-Lived Public Influence

Philip White, Department of Asian Studies, The University of Adelaide [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 2 (Article 7 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 30 August 2015.


After the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Japanese government began an extensive review of energy policy and in the summer of 2012 it conducted a national debate to gauge the public’s view on the future of nuclear power. It was the first time a public participation process actually influenced the policy direction, but, due to a change of government, that influence was short-lived.

This article employs a deliberative systems framework to analyse the interactions between official and unofficial processes, including the mass protests taking place at the time, and concludes that while synergies between civil society action and the official process generated considerable communicative power, the failure to convert this into electoral power meant that the new policy direction was soon reversed. Furthermore, although the official process was conducted in better faith than any pre-Fukushima public participation exercise, there were flaws that enabled nuclear proponents to challenge the legitimacy of the process and outcome.

Keywords: Japan, Fukushima nuclear accident, nuclear energy policy, energy policy, deliberation, deliberative system, public participation, Japanese civil society.


The 11 March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident created a monumental challenge for Japan’s energy policy. After such a disaster a thorough review of the existing policy was unavoidable. No one should have been surprised when a month after the accident Prime Minister Naoto Kan stated that it was necessary to review Japan’s energy policy “from scratch” (‘hakushi kara no kentō’, debate in the House of Councillors’ Budget Committee, 18 April 2011). What was less certain was the degree to which the policy-forming process itself would be affected and whether, unlike in the pre-Fukushima era, civil society and the general public would be able to influence the process and the outcome.

This article employs a deliberative systems analysis of the public participation process that transpired, adopting a broad definition of participation that includes both official and unofficial forms. It discusses how civil society and the general public were, for the first time in the history of Japan’s nuclear energy program, briefly able to exert real influence on the process and outcome of the post-Fukushima energy policy review. It shows how official and unofficial public participation processes may, in favourable circumstances, interact to resist the subversion of the political public sphere by power (Habermas 1996, p. 442), but how the communicative power generated by public participation needs to be converted into more concrete forms of countervailing power (Fung & Wright 2003) in order to exert lasting influence. In the case of the post-Fukushima energy policy review, the failure to convert this communicative power into votes meant that the hard-won change in policy direction was reversed at the first national election.

After locating the post-Fukushima policy review process in the context of deliberative systems theory, I discuss the policy review process in detail, presenting both official and unofficial dimensions, and analysing the role of civil society and the way public participation interacted with representative democracy.

Micro and Macro Perspectives

In the pre-Fukushima era the ‘nuclear village’ dominated Japan’s energy policy-making process, with only lip service being paid to public participation, but there were early signs that the public would be given much greater opportunity to participate in the post-Fukushima process. The post-Fukushima policy review process officially began in June 2011 with the establishment of the Energy and Environment Council (EEC 2011–2012) within the National Policy Unit of the Cabinet Secretariat. At its second meeting EEC approved a document which stated that Japan’s energy policy should be reviewed from a “zero base,” that the government wanted to “stimulate national discussions overcoming the confrontation between the opposition to nuclear power generation and its promotion,” and that it intended to “formulate innovative energy and environmental strategies while maintaining dialogue with a broad range of national people” (EEC 2011a, p. 13). This amounted to a commitment on the part of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government to engage the public in the policy-forming process. The question was, was this a commitment to engage the public in good faith, or another example of the type of bureaucratic rhetoric (Koga 2013) that had characterised the pre-Fukushima era? Long and bitter experience led nuclear critics to be suspicious.

The anti-nuclear movement responded with a two-pronged approach. It engaged directly with the official participation process at many levels, at the same time as mounting a mass protest campaign outside official channels. From a deliberative systems perspective, the movement contributed at both micro- and macro-deliberative levels (Hendriks 2006, pp. 486-487), participating in official forums and also contributing to deliberation in the wider public sphere, even when its methods were not deliberative in a narrow sense (refer to Dryzek’s discussion of the place of rhetoric in deliberation (Dryzek 2010, p. 15)).

Perhaps the most important criterion for judging whether or not the actions of citizens’ movements and NGOs contribute to deliberation is articulated by Mendonça and Ercan (forthcoming):

[F]or deliberation to occur, what is more important than the direct give-and-take of rational arguments among courteous citizens is the collective meaning-making and reflection process engendered by various communicative processes (p. 7).

That this criterion was fulfilled was effectively acknowledged by the official report of the panel established to assess the outcome of the public participation process (Minister for National Policy 2012b, pp. 5-6) (refer to discussion of the national debate below). However the collective meaning-making did not go deep enough to embed the outcome of the public participation process into official policy. This article argues that one reason for this was that linkages between the micro- and macro-levels were not extensive enough. According to Parkinson (2003, 2006), the legitimacy of micro-processes is derived from their connection to the wider macro-deliberative system:

[L]egitimacy depends in part on seeing deliberative forums as being embedded in a wider deliberative system in which legitimacy is created in the openness of the linkages between moments, rather than relying on ideal legitimacy of each moment taken separately (Parkinson 2003, p. 193).

Although for a short period there were strong linkages between the micro and macro levels, these linkages did not extend over a sufficient time span, or penetrate deep enough into society to create irresistible legitimacy.

Official Public Participation Process

Advisory Committees

The policy review began in traditional fashion with discussions in advisory committees. Debate about the overall direction of energy policy took place in the Fundamental Issues Subcommittee (FIS) (Agency for Natural Resources and Energy 2011–2012), a new committee established within the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy (ACNRE) to provide advice to EEC. FIS included an unprecedentedly large number of nuclear critics—eight outspoken critics in all, along with a few other sympathisers in a committee of 25. At the same time, a review of the nuclear fuel cycle policy was carried out by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission’s (JAEC) Council for a New Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy (JAEC 2011–2012),and the Ministry of the Environment’s Central Environment Council provided input on the CO2 emission impacts of various energy policy scenarios. These committee processes did not involve the general public directly, except by accepting public comments throughout, but they offered some potential for civil society to exert influence via a handful of committee members representing citizens’ groups. In fact, these nuclear critics exerted significant influence over the energy mix scenarios in FIS’s final report, although they were dissatisfied with the way the report was framed (FIS 2012, p. 159).

The discussions in these advisory committees turned out to be preparation for a national debate involving the general public and including some unprecedented innovative elements. This was the “dialogue with a broad range of national people” foreshadowed in EEC’s 29 July 2011 statement (EEC 2011a, p. 13). The next section provides an overview of the national debate, which took place from July to August 2012. The sections that follow then consider the way interaction between these official processes and unofficial processes initiated by civil society enabled public participation to exert real, albeit temporary, influence on the policy process and outcome.

Summer 2012 National Debate

The form of the national debate was not decided until the last minute. The government referred in its 29 July 2011 “Interim Compilation of Discussion Points” (EEC 2011a, p. 13) to “national discussions” (“kokuminteki giron,” translated hereafter as ‘national debate’). On 21 December 2011 it issued “Basic Principles” which stated that it aimed to hold a national debate in spring 2012 and to present an overall strategy in the summer (EEC 2011b, p. 2). But as of 8 June 2012, when EEC considered the energy mix scenarios developed by FIS, the form of the national debate still had not been decided. The government did not finally release the national debate program until 29 June 2012 (EEC 2012) and the national debate itself began just three days later on 2 July. The rushed nature of the process became a focus of criticism by nuclear proponents in particular.

The public was invited to consider three scenarios—based on (1) zero percent, (2) 15 percent, and (3) 20–25 percent nuclear energy in the electric power mix in 2030—in a national debate comprising the following components:

  1. Development of the information database relating to the energy and environmental options
  2. Holding of public hearing sessions relating to the energy and environmental options
  3. Solicitation of public comments relating to the energy and environmental strategy
  4. Conducting of a Deliberative Polling relating to the energy and environmental options (EEC 2012, p. 18)

In addition to these, the government said it would “cooperate with local authorities and private organisations in holding explanatory meetings for citizens and closely examine the opinion polls arranged by the mass media, thereby grasping citizens’ thoughts comprehensively” (EEC 2012, p. 18). A considerable amount of information was uploaded onto a new special purpose Website (National Policy Unit 2012). Public hearings were held in eleven centres around Japan from 14 July to 4 August, public comments were accepted from 2 July to 12 August, and a deliberative poll was held on 4–5 August.

Public hearings

The public hearings got off to a very bad start. It looked like they would degenerate into farce when speakers in favour of the 20–25 percent nuclear scenario turned out to be nuclear industry employees. The government responded by requesting electric power companies not to encourage employees to apply to speak at future hearings. It also responded to criticisms about the format by allowing more people to speak in favour of the zero option, reflecting the fact that the overwhelming majority of applicants favoured a nuclear phaseout. When I interviewed Ihara Tomohito (a bureaucrat from the National Policy Unit who was involved in the whole process), he made the following comment about the decision to change the rules midway through:

In the past, government officials wouldn’t change midstream. From an administrative perspective they didn’t like to do so because it meant admitting they were wrong. The basic stance at the time was that since this was a national debate it should reflect public opinion and to the greatest extent possible the public should be able to agree with the results. On this principle, at that particular moment we thought it best to change the rules.

Public comments

Originally the government intended to accept public comments from 2–31 July, but, in response to criticisms from citizens’ groups and others that this was too short, the deadline was extended to 12 August. The public comments received were unprecedented in at least two respects. First, a total of 89,124 comments were submitted (Minister for National Policy 2012a, p. 6). This far exceeded the number received in previous public comment exercises. Second, the responses were not standardised, meaning the people who responded cared enough to go to the trouble of composing their own comments, rather than copying a standard text provided by a lobby group. A third point, which, though not unprecedented for smaller public comment exercises, sent a powerful message to the government, was the fact that nearly 90 percent of comments favoured a nuclear phase out (Minister for National Policy 2012a, p. 10).

Deliberative poll

The deliberative poll (DP) was “the first… anywhere in the world that was commissioned by a government to get input on a subject of national importance before a national decision” (Fishkin 2012, p. 2 (Japanese), p. 1 (English)). The decision to hold a DP was made in response to suggestions by NGO representatives in FIS and lobbying by public participation academics. The DP suffered to some extent due to the lack of preparation time, but it nevertheless strongly influenced the analysis of the national debate as a whole. There were four main reasons for this: (1) the organisers were perceived to be independent; (2) the randomly selected participants, being non-partisan, were more open to changing their views than the self-selecting people who participated in the hearings and who submitted public comments; (3) the final questionnaire revealed important information about the reasons behind participants’ opinions; and (4) the percentage of participants who supported a nuclear phaseout increased substantially as a result of deliberation.

National Debate Verification Panel

To increase the perceived legitimacy of the national debate, as an afterthought the government established a National Debate Verification Panel (Kokuminteki Giron ni kan suru Kentō Kaigō) to analyse the results. Based on its analysis of all components of the national debate and taking into account the fact that many people who supported the 15 percent scenario indicated that they supported a nuclear phaseout beyond 2030, the panel concluded:

According to the national debate on this occasion, at least half of the citizens, despite differences depending on age and gender, share a wish for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy (Minister for National Policy 2012b, pp. 4-5).

Despite differences of opinion about the timing, the national debate provided strong evidence that the public supported a phaseout of nuclear energy. Thus, the official public participation process generated considerable communicative power in support of the zero nuclear scenario and this in turn put pressure on political decision makers. The next section addresses unofficial public participation, in the form of lobbying and protest, and shows how it influenced the form and content of the official process, at the same time as operating within the broader public sphere to generate pressure from outside the official process. In this way, synergies between official and unofficial processes increased the communicative power of the overall process.

Unofficial Public Participation

At the same time as the official energy policy review was taking place, citizens were taking unofficial initiatives intended to influence the official process. The main focus of this section is the e-shift network formed soon after the 3.11 disaster and the interaction between the work of e-shift, the massive demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s office in mid-2012, and the national debate.

E-shift network

The e-shift network (e-shift) was formed soon after the Fukushima accident and soon became a hub of the post-Fukushima nuclear phaseout campaign. This section focuses on e-shift’s activities in relation to energy policy, although e-shift has also taken up many other issues, including supporting the cause of the residents of Fukushima Prefecture who became victims of the nuclear accident, lobbying for tougher radiation standards, and critiquing the new nuclear safety standards.

On 8 December 2011 e-shift issued a statement articulating ten principles and seven pillars for a “Nuclear phase out / energy shift basic policy” (e-shift 2011). This statement played an important role in the development of e-shift’s platform, forming the basis of a “Citizens’ Energy Basic Plan” proposal released on 29 August 2012 (e-shift 2012a). However it had no discernible direct impact on the official policy review process. The statement had a point of connection with the official process, because it was tabled in METI’s Fundamental Issues Subcommittee (FIS) by FIS member Ban Hideyuki, Co-director of e-shift member group Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), but Ban referred only briefly to the statement and the contents were not discussed.

As the debate in FIS progressed, e-shift members became concerned about the direction it was taking. They expressed their concerns in a 24 May 2012 statement (e-shift 2012e), which again was tabled by Ban Hideyuki at FIS’s meeting of the same day. However, as with the December 2011 statement, the contents were not specifically addressed. These statements by e-shift about policy content reinforced the criticisms expressed by nuclear critic members of the advisory committees, but the interaction between e-shift’s unofficial lobbying and the committee stage of the official process was weak, and e-shift was not able to exert direct influence until the national debate.

E-shift began to give serious thought to process after the METI, JAEC and MoE subcommittees submitted their reports to EEC and the national debate became imminent. On 13 June 2012 it issued a statement (e-shift 2012b) which, after criticising a bureaucracy-controlled process that had not sufficiently reflected voices from civil society, made the following seven process-related recommendations:

1)  public participation from the planning stage of the national debate forums
2)  reflect the results of autonomous meetings (i.e. non-government meetings)
3)  national referendum and questionnaires
4)  reflect the results of autonomous discussions in the Diet
5)  seek the views of local governments
6)  conduct hearings to understand the true damage from the Fukushima accident
7)  allow sufficient time for the national debate.

Some of the above proposals were partially addressed, although it is not possible definitively to attribute this outcome to e-shift’s lobbying. The clearest area where e-shift’s statement could be said to have influenced the national debate process was item (2) in relation to autonomous meetings. This was taken up in the form of ‘explanatory meetings’ held during the national debate. Thus, e-shift’s unofficial lobbying became directly connected with the official process through the participation of bureaucrats in explanatory meetings organised by e-shift and other groups, and the inclusion of these meetings in the analysis of the National Debate Verification Panel.

Although not directly related to the above proposals, other examples of e-shift’s influence on the process included the government’s decisions to extend the time for public comments and to publish all public comments on the internet. The degree to which e-shift’s lobbying influenced these decisions is difficult to assess, but at least e-shift should be seen as one significant voice in a fluid environment where the government modified the national debate format in several ways.

The above examples of possible e-shift influence on the national debate related to process. E-shift’s earlier statements about policy content were tabled at advisory committee meetings but had no discernible influence. However, as discussed in the next section, e-shift and other members of the anti-nuclear movement did eventually succeed in influencing the content of the national debate.

Protests and the national debate

At the same time as e-shift was lobbying the government on matters of policy and process, massive demonstrations were unfolding in Tokyo’s political district of Nagata-cho. The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes began staging weekly Friday evening protests from 29 March 2012. At first a few hundred people turned up, but the numbers grew rapidly from June after the government pushed for the restart of Units 3 and 4 of Kansai Electric Power Company’s Ohi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. Based on organisers’ estimates, numbers peaked at about 200,000 on 29 June and stayed around the 100,000 mark till mid-August (Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes 2012; Oguma 2013, p. 17).

Although it is not possible directly to measure the political impact of these demonstrations, it is clear that they had a profound impact on the political mood at the time. One commentator with special insight into the impact of the demonstrations was Shimomura Ken’ichi, a former TBS journalist who was drafted by former Prime Minister Naoto Kan to work in the Office of Cabinet Secretary for Public Relations. He describes the atmosphere of the demonstrations as follows:

On several occasions when I had to go to the Prime Minister’s residence I had no choice but to walk through the crowd gathered on the footpath. On those occasions the difference in atmosphere from the participants of ordinary demonstrations (mobilised organisation people, or professional protesters) was very apparent. For a start, everyone was cheerful. They were not uniform. They were colourful in all sorts of ways (Shimomura 2013, p. 277).

Regarding the impact of the demonstrations on the political climate, he makes the following observation:

Clearly the force of these weekly demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s residence was felt like a body blow by the politicians in the Prime Minister’s residence and the government and opposition politicians in the Diet members’ offices next door… A mood of ‘We really do have to seriously consider adopting a policy of zero nuclear’ gradually spread among politicians from all kinds of parties.

Then on 6 August, Hiroshima A-Bomb Day, Prime Minister Noda stated at a press conference in Hiroshima City that he was requesting responsible ministers to consider what issues would arise “if in future dependence on nuclear energy were reduced to zero.” Clearly, at a time when there was no election, the voices of people in the streets exerted influence on national politics. Over about 30 years I have seen and participated in all sorts of citizens’ movements, but this was the first time I had witnessed a scene where such real force was exerted on politics (Shimomura 2013, pp. 279-280).

Shimomura believes the demonstrations played an important role in establishing a political frame in which ‘zero nuclear’ was seen as a genuine option and sees Noda’s Hiroshima Day statement as the climax of the protests’ political influence.

The protests achieved another symbolic climax when representatives of the demonstrators won agreement for a face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Noda. A meeting was brokered by Noda’s predecessor Kan Naoto, who became an unequivocal advocate of a nuclear phaseout after he resigned as Prime Minister. Kan is reported to have told members of the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes that he had observed that the demonstrations were having an impact on Noda (Nagata 2012). When I interviewed Diet Member Kondo Shoichi, he noted that many DPJ politicians felt that they needed to be sensitive to the voices of the protesters and that, although he didn’t say it, Noda probably felt that way too. Kondo believed this feature of the DPJ was a reason why the demonstrations had a big impact.

The impact of the protests was also felt within the bureaucracy. Shimomura Ken’ichi observes:

The influence of the demonstrations did not just extend to politicians. Among the bureaucrats who silently wove their way past the demonstrations there were those who thought, ‘It’s not good to continue with the existing nuclear policy’ and who took courage from the demonstrations. Although this effect could not be seen with the naked eye, I think it was quite significant (Shimomura 2013, p. 280).

When I interviewed Kawasaki Akira of Peace Boat, who has often played the role of a conduit between the bureaucracy and the peace movement, he expressed the impact as follows:

For me, personally establishing a human relationship with government officials and government related scholars was ironically so important, because I could hear from many of them that it is having an impact, at least psychologically or mentally… They say they are really feeling threat from the continued demonstrations. One remark that I heard… is that the continuation of the demonstrations is the biggest impact. One big symbolic event can happen on many issues, but in this case it continues every Friday, every Friday, and a significant number of people.

A key question is, how did all this feed into the official policy review process? One small but tangible way was the fact that the National Debate Verification Panel’s report mentioned the demonstrations in the same breath as the public comments:

Major factors behind the 77,000 comments saying nuclear energy should be reduced to zero and behind the demonstrations each week opposing restart of nuclear power plants were mistrust of the government and anxiety about nuclear power plants. It can be said that the highest priority is to dispel this mistrust and anxiety (Minister for National Policy 2012b, pp. 5-6).

This was effectively an acknowledgment that the demonstrations were part of the national debate, if not at an official level, at least as part of the opinion-forming process in the wider public sphere. It was an acknowledgment that the wider public sphere is relevant to policy making. In Mendonça and Ercan’s terms, the demonstrations contributed to deliberation in the public sphere by being part of a “collective meaning-making and reflection process” (Mendonça & Ercan forthcoming, p. 7).

Besides this official acknowledgment, the demonstrations interacted with the official process in another very concrete way. They provided a forum for groups, in particular e-shift, to promote participation in the official process. It is fair to say that the reason so many people submitted public comments was e-shift’s public comments campaign. The campaign used the demonstrations, the Internet and social media to encourage citizens to submit comments in their own words. As a result, almost 90,000 public comments were submitted, nearly 90 percent of which called for a phaseout of nuclear energy (Minister for National Policy 2012a, pp. 6,10).

E-shift was sceptical of the national debate process and the options from which the public were asked to choose (e-shift 2012d). It viewed the three scenarios as biased against the zero nuclear scenario and designed to channel the public to select the middle scenario (15 percent nuclear). However, in the extraordinary circumstances where massive demonstrations were occurring at the same time as the national debate was taking place, e-shift’s public comments campaign generated synergies between unofficial forms of public participation and the official participation process. The result was an unprecedented response to the government’s call for public comments. While the percentage of public comments in favour of a nuclear phaseout was not thought to reflect the distribution within the overall population, the sheer numbers carried considerable weight.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about which had more impact, participation through the official national debate, or unofficial participation in the form of protests. Kondo Shoichi expressed it as follows:

It is very difficult to say which had greater impact. The national debate was a process directly organised by the government with statistical outcomes, so it had a very big direct impact. On the other hand the situation where the Prime Minister’s residence was surrounded had a big psychological impact.

Although the nature of the impact of official and unofficial participation was different, important synergies between the two forms enhanced the communicative power of both. How this affected policy is discussed below.

Nuclear Phaseout by 2039

Although there was a range of views about the timing, the National Debate Verification Panel’s report strongly suggested that a nuclear phase out had majority support among the general public (Minister for National Policy 2012b, pp. 4-5). However, when the national debate started, many commentators, including the anti-nuclear network e-shift, suspected the government favoured the 15 percent scenario, even to the point of deliberately channelling the public to choose it as a middle option (e-shift 2012d, p. 2). This view was reinforced by a comment made on 25 May 2012 by Environment Minister Hosono Goshi, one of a handful of ministers with key portfolio responsibility for energy and nuclear energy related matters. He said, “Fifteen percent can be one base.” This was widely interpreted to mean that he favoured the 15 percent scenario (Kyodo 2012a). But many other DPJ politicians supported a nuclear phase out. For example, in April 2012 former Prime Minister Kan Naoto established a group of DPJ lawmakers to develop a road map for phasing out nuclear power (Kyodo 2012b). There was no pre-determined party consensus that a target of 15 percent nuclear in the electricity mix in 2030 would be chosen.

After the national debate the DPJ set up a committee to develop an agreed party policy (Mainichi Japan 2012c; Suzuki 2012). The committee was chaired by the chairman of the party’s Policy Research Committee, Maehara Seiji, who was believed to support continuing nuclear power, while the vice chairperson, Tsujimoto Kiyomi, was a staunch nuclear critic. Other nuclear critics included Kondo Shoichi of the cross party No Nukes Committee (Gempatsu Zero no Kai). Kan Naoto was an advisor. The committee’s report, finalised on 6 September 2012, contained the following key sentence:

The Government will mobilise all possible policy resources to such a level as to even enable zero operation of nuclear power plants in the 2030’s (Energy and Environment Study Group 2012, p. 2).

The expression ‘in the 2030s’ was interpreted to mean ‘by 2039’, so the time frame represented a retreat from the 2030 target year around which the national debate revolved. In effect it meant 15 percent by 2030, trending to ‘zero’ by the end of the decade. From this perspective it could be seen as a compromise between the zero and 15 percent scenarios, but the inclusion of the word ‘zero’ was seen as significant. When I interviewed Kan Naoto he said that he had argued strongly for including the word ‘zero’.

The 15 percent figure means that even if it falls to 15 percent the possibility of it rebounding to 20 or 30 percent is retained. That’s unacceptable.

He believed that if a decision could be made on a time bound phase out, nuclear plant makers would stop investing in nuclear energy.

Evidently, including the ‘zero nuclear’ target was a difficult decision for the DPJ. Kondo Shoichi made the following comment about the debate within the committee and within the party as a whole:

On 6 September we produced a report which said ‘mobilise all possible policy resources to such a level as to even enable zero operation of nuclear power plants in the 2030’s’, but up until that morning there were powerful Democratic Party politicians who wanted to go for 15 percent by 2030… It is true that among party officials there were strong voices in favour of 15 percent by 2030. One of those was Hosono I think.

The DPJ politicians whom I interviewed acknowledged that the national debate and the demonstrations were very influential in pushing the party to recommend a nuclear phaseout. Kan Naoto said that the demonstrations “had a big impact on politics.” In the brief time granted to me in their busy schedules none of the politicians explicitly stated that without these events the outcome would have been different, but former Deputy Director General of the Office of Cabinet Secretary for Public Relations Shimomura Ken’ichi, who was closely involved in the whole process, told me that he believed that without the national debate and the demonstrations the 15 percent option would have been chosen. The weight of evidence supports that conclusion. So when the DPJ finalised its report the post-Fukushima public participation process was on the verge of becoming the first public participation process to have substantive influence on Japan’s energy or nuclear energy policy.

But the DPJ policy committee’s report was not yet government policy. The overall policy direction was articulated a week later in the Energy and Environment Council’s Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment (Innovative Strategy). This document retained the clause about a nuclear phaseout by 2039, but already the government had climbed down from some aspects of the previous week’s party policy report. Whereas the DPJ policy report had proposed reconsidering the government’s policies on nuclear exports and the nuclear fuel cycle (Energy and Environment Research Committee 2012, pp. 5-6), the Innovative Strategy dropped these proposals. Unlike the nuclear phaseout target, neither of these policy areas was a focus of the national debate, so the communicative power generated by the official and unofficial public participation processes did not operate directly on these issues.

What happened between the finalisation of the DPJ’s party policy and the release of the government’s Innovative Strategy? Pressure from three directions caused the government to back down: from industry (Yanase 2013, pp. 170-171); from prefectures which host nuclear fuel cycle facilities; and from foreign governments. Aomori Prefecture was in a particularly strong bargaining position because, on the basis of past undertakings from the central government and from Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd that it would not become a final disposal site for spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste (Aomori Prefecture 2012, p. 149), it was threatening to return spent nuclear fuel currently stored at Rokkasho to nuclear power plants (Mainichi Japan 2012a). Aomori was also threatening to refuse to accept radioactive waste returned from France and the UK. Japan was obliged to accept radioactive waste resulting from past reprocessing contracts with these countries and the storage facility was in Rokkasho. That threat drew expressions of concern from the French and UK governments (Mainichi Japan 2012b; The Asahi Shimbun 2012).

The US government also expressed concern, but for different reasons (Jiji 2012; Mainichi Japan 2012d; Minami et al. 2012; Yamauchi & Arimitsu 2012). Its concerns were two fold. First, US nuclear power plant makers were heavily dependent on Japan’s nuclear industry. If Japan withdrew from the nuclear export market that would make it difficult for US industry to produce nuclear power plants for both domestic use and for export and could allow Russia and China to become the world leaders in nuclear technology. The US also had a somewhat schizophrenic concern about Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle. On the one hand US supporters of nuclear fuel cycle research and development, especially fast burner reactors designed to reduce the quantity of radioactive waste, were hoping to reap benefits from Japan’s research using the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor. On the other hand, people who were concerned about nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security had nightmares about Japan adding to its already huge stockpiles of plutonium without having any immediate prospect of using it.

In the face of these pressures the DPJ government opted for a plainly contradictory strategy. Under the circumstances, perhaps the most remarkable thing was that it stuck with the 2039 nuclear phaseout target. It is testimony to the communicative power generated by the national debate and the protests that this target remained, even though it clearly contradicted the decision to continue with the existing nuclear fuel cycle policy.

How did the anti-nuclear movement respond to this contradictory Innovative Strategy? Considering the fact that most of the public comments called for all nuclear power plants to be permanently shut down immediately, it is fair to assume that most of the protesters were dissatisfied with the Innovative Strategy’s nuclear phase out target date of 2039. When I interviewed Misao Redwolf of the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, she said that their aim was an immediate end to nuclear power, but she nevertheless acknowledged the significance of the inclusion of the ‘zero’ word. Having spoken to many politicians who confirmed that the protests had a big impact, she had no doubt that, together with other civil society actions, they had shifted (‘ugokashita’) the politics. She also noted that having many politicians within the governing party who supported a phase out was an important factor. E-shift likewise acknowledged the significance of the inclusion of the ‘zero’ word, but, in light of the public comments submitted during the national debate, it criticised the Innovative Strategy for the slow pace of the phase out (e-shift 2012c).

When I interviewed former National Policy Unit bureaucrat Ihara Tomohito, he defended the 2039 target date saying, “The way I see it, this conclusion is consistent as a conclusion that emerged from the national debate.” Alluding to the logic behind the National Debate Verification Panel’s conclusion that at least half the population wanted a society that does not depend on nuclear energy, namely that some of those who supported the ‘15 percent by 2030’ scenario actually supported a nuclear phase out in the longer term, he noted, “It was not clear from the national debate that half wanted zero nuclear energy by 2030. Lots of people were not confident.” On this basis he believed that a phase out by 2039 accurately reflected the outcome of the national debate.

Both the above perspectives have some logic, but most importantly for the argument here, both recognise that input from the public, whether official or unofficial, was influential. Fears that the outcome was pre-determined proved to be unfounded. However the public’s influence was diluted by the Cabinet Decision that followed the release of the Innovative Strategy. The Cabinet’s 19 September 2012 decision was expected formally to endorse the Innovative Strategy, but it left its status unclear. The brief and ambiguously worded decision was widely interpreted as relegating the Innovative Strategy to the status of a reference document:

The Government of Japan will implement future policies on energy and the environment, taking into account of “the Innovative Strategy on Energy and the Environment” (the decision of the Energy and the Environment Council on September 14th, 2012), while having discussions in a responsible manner with related local governments, the international community and others, and obtaining understanding of the Japanese public, by constantly reviewing and reexamining policies with flexibility (Government of Japan 2012).

Had the Cabinet Decision endorsed the document in its entirety it would have had binding force, but its status was left in limbo. Some media outlets reported that pressure from the US government was behind the decision not formally to endorse the strategy (Tokyo Shimbun 2012; Yazawa 2012). Whatever the reasons for not adopting the Innovative Strategy in its entirety, the net result was that an official policy would have to wait for the production of a new Basic Energy Plan.

According to Shimomura Ken’ichi, who, along with two other bureaucrats and three researchers, was tasked with drafting the Innovative Strategy (Shimomura 2013, pp. 302-303), some people in the government supported endorsing it in its entirety, while others were strongly opposed. Under the compromise wording that was chosen, future energy and environment policies would take into account the Innovative Strategy. Any future decision that did not take into account the decision to phase out nuclear energy by the 2030s would therefore be in breach of the Cabinet Decision. However the second half of the Cabinet Decision allowed the government to take into account a change of circumstances. The question was whether the first half or the second half would win out. Shimomura interpreted the flexibility of the second half as “leaving the final decision in the hands of the citizens.” In Shimomura’s view there was no reason for nuclear critics to give up hope on the basis of this Cabinet Decision, but in fact they had given up hope. Advisor to the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and Deputy Director of Energy Green, Takemura Hideaki, told me,

Surprisingly there are people in the citizens’ movement who say that it wasn’t endorsed by the Cabinet Decision. I think [to say] that is to throw away their own achievement.

In fact, however, after the change of government, bureaucrats used the vagueness of the Cabinet Decision to justify ignoring the Innovative Strategy. I discuss this in the next section, which addresses the fate of the national debate and the zero nuclear target after the change of government.

Post-Election December 2012

Three months after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government announced its Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment, the DPJ was defeated in a national election. The victorious Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) adopted an ambiguous position on nuclear power during the election campaign, but it was recognised to be more favourable towards nuclear power than the other parties. However it was clear from exit polls, which showed that a majority of voters still supported a nuclear phase out, that nuclear energy was not a decisive voting issue.

The new government promptly announced that it would review the previous government’s energy and environment strategy from scratch. It disbanded the National Policy Unit under which the ministerial level Energy and Environment Council had been located and returned the responsibility for energy and environment policy to the pro-nuclear Ministry for Economy and Industry (METI). It also disbanded the Fundamental Issues Subcommittee (FIS) of METI’s Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy (ACNRE) and returned the discussions about a new Basic Energy Plan to FIS’s parent committee, the Coordination Subcommittee (subsequently renamed the Strategic Policy Committee in a reorganisation of ACNRE) (Agency for Natural Resources and Energy 2013). In so doing it dropped most of the nuclear critics who had served on FIS from the new review process. Clearly the government did not feel that the 19 September 2012 Cabinet Decision bound it to honour the DPJ government’s Innovative Strategy. Indeed, in a classic example of “bureaucratic rhetoric” (Koga 2013), officers of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said in response to questions by anti-nuclear activists that the Innovative Strategy had not been confirmed by a Cabinet Decision (Yoshida 2014).

The Innovative Strategy was not even submitted as a reference document to the new energy policy review process, which commenced on 15 March 2013. Instead, the review took as its starting point the pre-Fukushima Basic Energy Plan (June 2010), which was the legally extant policy, even though there was no possibility of returning to the nuclear energy targets in that document. As for the previous summer’s national debate, no documents about it were submitted to the new review. Minister of Economy Trade and Industry Motegi Toshimitsu referred obliquely to it when he said in response to a question about public participation:

I think it is very important for you to listen to a wide range of voices from the public… My personal feeling is that rather than some type of yes/no questionnaire, we should listen more carefully to various people’s opinions. I think that would be more productive (Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy Coordination Subcommittee 2013, p. 36).

His negative reference to a ‘yes/no questionnaire’ presumably was intended as a disparaging remark about the deliberative poll held by the previous government. From the small number of people who the committee invited to give presentations, it is clear that “a wide range of voices from the public” was not meant to include nuclear critics. The LDP-Komei government was acting as if the national debate and the goal of phasing out nuclear power had never happened.

The new government’s lack of commitment to public participation became clear from the way in which a draft basic energy plan produced was released for public comment. The draft was produced by the Secretariat and distributed to committee members a very short time before the 6 December 2013 meeting. Several committee members said they had barely had time to look at it (Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy Strategic Policy Committee 2013). The Secretariat explained it during the meeting and took comments, but the draft was released for public comment that day. It was updated at the next meeting (13 December), but the period for public comments was extended just two days to 6 January 2014. ACNRE’s Strategic Policy Committee was not reconvened to review the comments received and no public hearings were held.

The release of the new Basic Energy Plan was delayed due to the Tokyo gubernatorial election, which included prominent anti-nuclear candidates, and due to concerns among some LDP politicians and LDP’s coalition partner the New Komei Party (Mainichi Japan 2014a). After the defeat of the anti-nuclear candidates at the Tokyo election and some intra- and inter-party horse-trading, a slightly amended Basic Energy Plan (BEP) was finally approved by Cabinet on 11 April 2014 (METI 2014). The new BEP states that dependence on nuclear energy will be reduced “to the extent possible” (p. 24), but gives no numerical indication of how much it will be reduced and reinstates it as an “an important base-load power source” (p. 24).

The broader significance of the change of government for public participation in Japan’s energy and nuclear energy policy is discussed below.

The Difference a Change of Government Makes

Based on the above discussion, it seems that the greatest lesson from the post-Fukushima energy policy review process is that, when push comes to shove, representative democracy trumps public participation. A citizens’ movement was able to exert influence through the DPJ government’s public participation process, but it was unable to convert the communicative power generated by the protests and the national debate into electoral power. On grounds such as representativeness and accountability, the primacy of representative democracy is accepted by most public participation scholars, including those who ran Japan’s energy and environment DP (Yanase 2013, pp. 182-184). Furthermore, it is not unusual for governments to ignore the results of public participation exercises. As Dryzek observes,

[C]onsider the impact of deliberative citizen forums. These forums often feature high-quality and inclusive deliberation. However, the frequent fate of the recommendations of these forums is to be ignored or lost in the give-and-take of larger political interaction. Often there is little reason for politicians and bureaucrats to take much notice of the forum and its recommendations (unless it provides them with some ammunition to be used in strategic struggles) (Dryzek 2010, pp. 73-74).

However, it is not possible to draw from this example the general conclusion that representative democracy will always trump public participation, even if that potential always exists. In this case, nuclear energy policy was not the cause of the DPJ’s defeat. Had it performed better as a government and been trusted by the electorate, it might have won the election. In that case the national debate might have afforded sufficient legitimacy for the nuclear phaseout goal to be written into the Basic Energy Plan. That would not in itself have guaranteed that the public’s wish for a nuclear phaseout would have been realised. The nuclear village would certainly have used its power in a continued and concerted attempt to subvert the outcome of the national debate, but it would not have had such overwhelming and rapid success as it has under the LDP-Komei government.

Legitimacy Challenged

The DPJ government’s post-Fukushima review of energy policy was an example of a citizens’ movement creating synergies between unofficial and official processes and exerting influence by channelling its message through the bureaucratic logic of an official process. It was thus able to link deliberation taking place in the public sphere with deliberation in official forums. This made it easier for sympathetic politicians and bureaucrats to support the policies promoted by the movement. Synergies operated at several levels, including:

  • NGO representatives participating as members of advisory committees;
  • activists lobbying about the form of the national debate;
  • citizens’ groups hosting ‘explanatory meetings’ within the framework of the national debate;
  • NGO representatives participating as experts in the deliberative poll;
  • a citizens’ movement staging mass protests each Friday night outside the Prime Minister’s office;
  • activists using the protests to promote participation in the national debate via the official public hearings and public comments processes.

Such synergies may not always be possible, and piggy-backing on official processes may not always be the best strategy for citizens’ movements, but the special circumstances created by the Fukushima nuclear accident and the fact that the government of the time was more favourable to public participation than previous governments created an unprecedented opportunity for civil society to influence government policy. Deputy Director of Energy Green, Takemura Hideaki, accounted for the influence of nuclear critics by comparing the attitudes of the DPJ and the LDP towards public participation as follows:

Part of why we were able to achieve so much was because it was the DPJ government. It was different in some respects from the LDP. There was probably a stance of listening to the public. Or perhaps it felt that it had to adopt a pose. Maybe it didn’t feel that way in its heart of hearts, but because it adopted a pose that’s the way it turned out. But the LDP doesn’t need to do that.

The flip side of this was that preserving the policy direction won by civil society during the national debate was contingent on continuation of the DPJ regime. In the end, the failure of the anti-nuclear movement to convert the communicative power generated through the protests and the national debate into electoral power meant that the policy direction was quickly reversed.

Reversing the DPJ government’s energy policy direction was made easier by the fact that the national debate was flawed in many ways. Although it was more thorough and impartial than any previous public participation process attempted in the history of Japan’s nuclear energy program, defects arising from the rushed nature of the process were easy targets for criticism by nuclear proponents (Ito 2012; The Yomiuri Shimbun 2012a, 2012b). They exploited these defects to challenge the legitimacy of the outcome of the national debate and reassert control of energy policy.

Another problem was that the national debate was conducted over a very short time span and, considering the centrality of energy to modern society, did not engage the wider community deeply enough (Ito 2012). In Parkinson’s terms (2003, 2006), the weakness of the linkages between the micro-processes and the wider macro-deliberative system undermined the legitimacy of the overall policy review process.


The above discussion shows how the national debate of summer 2012 was embedded in a wider deliberative system, which included a mass protest movement that generated communicative power via both mainstream and social media and by creating an atmosphere in the political district of Nagata-cho that was “felt like a body blow” by politicians and bureaucrats. However, these processes were condensed into too short a time span to fulfil Parkinson’s requirement for open “linkages between moments.” If the DPJ government had had more time and if the national debate had been followed by an extended public participation process throughout Japan, the new policy direction might have gained a degree of legitimacy that even the pro-nuclear LDP would have found difficult to ignore. Opinion polls suggest that the public continues to support a nuclear phaseout. For example, a September 2014 poll by the Mainichi Shimbun showed that nearly 60 percent of the public continues to oppose restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants (Mainichi Japan 2014b). It is, therefore, likely that the results of the summer 2012 national debate would have been reinforced by follow up public participation exercises.

As it is, although the DPJ government’s post-Fukushima policy review process was unprecedented in its openness to input from civil society and the general public, and although official and unofficial processes combined to generate communicative power that exerted real influence on the policy direction, the fact that this communicative power was not converted into electoral power meant that nuclear proponents were able to subvert the outcome and to expunge all participatory innovations from the post-election process. Nevertheless, the DPJ government’s policy review showed how synergies between official and unofficial processes could potentially generate effective countervailing power. That on this occasion countervailing power was short-lived was largely a product of the political circumstances.

Had it won the election, the DPJ government might have succeeded in formalising its nuclear phaseout policy, although implementing it would have been an even greater challenge. In view of the power of the electric power industry, it would have been necessary to maintain the countervailing power over the long term. This highlights an inherent limitation of one-off public participation processes. If countervailing power dissipates over time, vested interests will outlast it and rollback the gains won by civil society and the general public. To have lasting impact in matters such as energy policy, where traditional power is deeply entrenched, public participation needs “linkages between moments” over an extended period of time and deliberative forums need to be “embedded in a wider deliberative system” (Parkinson 2003, p. 193) that confers lasting legitimacy and generates sustained countervailing power.


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About the Author

Philip White completed his PhD in 2014 at The University of Adelaide’s Centre for Asian Studies. His thesis, entitled “Public Participation in Japan’s Nuclear Energy Policy-Forming Process,” drew on seven years experience as International Liaison Officer for the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre (CNIC), a leading Japanese anti-nuclear NGO. He was CNIC’s international spokesperson at the time of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident.

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