” OSAKA – They’re nothing but a bunch of overpaid, arrogant jerks who should have been fired long ago for their managerial incompetence, while he’s a just another crude loudmouth who has no idea what he’s talking about.
Based on their public comments these past few years, that pretty much sums up, in the politest language possible, how Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto feels about senior managers at Kansai Electric Power Co., and how they view him. But with Hashimoto announcing he will not seek re-election when his term ends later this year, the cobra-mongoose relationship between the mayor and Kepco officials will come to an end.
That’s very good news for Kepco’s pro-nuclear managers, who must have popped the champagne corks when the Osaka merger plan was voted down on May 17 and its champion, Hashimoto, declared he was done with politics.
Ever since Hashimoto, as governor in spring 2011, announced it was time for Osaka, and Japan, to get out of nuclear power, he’s been a pain in the neck (at least) for Kepco managers. Many thought, and still do, that Hashimoto wasn’t truly serious about dropping nuclear power, that it was just an appeal to popular sentiment in the weeks after March 11, 2011.
But if Hashimoto was playacting, it was a long-running performance. After becoming mayor in November 2011, he made it clear that Osaka, which owns about 9 percent of Kepco, would demand the utility reform itself by deregulating its distribution channels and increasing renewable energy.
That was music to the ears of nuclear opponents in a region that had relied on atomic power for about half its electricity supply before the core meltdowns of March 2011.
It also appealed to Osaka’s traditional entrepreneurial spirit in two ways. Those with an interest in developing renewable-energy technology saw a city that might support their efforts, while the idea of homes and small businesses generating, and selling, small amounts of electricity to their immediate neighbors created a gleam in the eye of many merchants.
They salivated at the thought of grabbing business from Kepco, whose monopoly on the electricity market was cited by Hashimoto and his supporters as a major factor behind Osaka’s two-decade-long economic stagnation.
Traditional anti-nuclear activists were wary, however. Most despised Hashimoto’s conservative, even right-wing, views on historical and educational issues, and doubted he’d spend political capital to challenge the nuclear lobby. When a group of activists tried to get him to hold a referendum on whether Osaka should get out of nuclear power, the mayor balked, saying that without a detailed plan of action for doing so, such a pursuit was meaningless. The referendum never happened.
Hashimoto did form a committee of outside experts to look at getting the city and prefecture out of nuclear and into renewables. But Kepco defied Hashimoto and public opinion and restarted two reactors in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, in summer 2012. These were the nation’s first restarts since the 2011 quake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdowns.
Hashimoto initially opposed the Oi restarts. But in the end, he agreed with other Kansai leaders to a provisional restart, a move that disappointed his anti-nuclear supporters.
The relationship between the mayor and Kepco remained contentious. Finally, Hashimoto announced earlier this year he would submit a resolution to force the city to sell its shares in Kepco, saying the utility had made no effort to get out of nuclear power. But members of the Osaka Municipal Assembly, many of whom are loyal to Kepco or fear its financial and political clout, voted the resolution down.
Last week, the day after the merger referendum failed, Kepco won permission from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to raise electricity rates 8.36 percent beginning June 1 — its third rate hike since March 2011.
That means a monthly home power bill of around ¥8,200, up 28 percent from early 2011, and another drag on the local economy.
After the merger plan failed, Hashimoto was asked about his failure to get Osaka out of nuclear power. He brushed off the question, saying it was now a national issue, beyond his authority. But there was a touch of regret in his voice, although it’s unclear whether that was because he genuinely believes in a nuclear-free future, or because he just hates losing an argument. Especially to those he views as a bunch of overpaid, arrogant jerks who should have been fired long ago for their managerial incompetence. ”