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The Mayor of Nowhere: Former cattleman runs campaign to revitalize Namie, Fukushima

October 5, 2018
On the last Friday in July 2018, a car with speakers mounted on the roof pulled up to the TEPCO headquarters near Hibiya Park. At a little past 5pm, the utility’s employees began streaming out of the building and, as they glided through the automatic doors, recognition flashed over their faces. As they turned toward the Shinbashi nightlife district, the office workers shot sour looks at the man in the blue-and-yellow sash, who stood in front of the car.
“You should take responsibility. How can you just walk by? You are polluting Fukushima’s waters,” he yelled into a microphone, blasting the company for its actions since the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Masami Yoshizawa was running for mayor of Namie, one of the seven cities, towns and villages surrounding the damaged power plant that remain under partial evacuation orders. As part of his campaign, he’d come to TEPCO to deliver a letter outlining his plans to take the company to court for damages and to demand the utility cancel plans to release tons of radiation-contaminated water into the Pacific.
Yoshizawa had spoken in front of the headquarters before. The first time was in the days following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Back then, he’d held out as long as he could on his ranch, 14 kilometers from the power plant. Once it became clear that his herd of 328 Japanese beef cows had lost all their value — the animals had been worth over ¥450 million before they were exposed to the radiation released from the plant — he decided to go to Tokyo to make his voice heard. After driving down, he walked into the scrum of police and news vans that surrounded the TEPCO headquarters and demanded to speak with someone from the company. Though the police seized him by the arms, he didn’t give up until a representative from the utility eventually agreed to listen to his complaint.
After returning to Fukushima, he started visiting his ranch to feed his animals, unwilling to let them starve. Eventually, he decided to ignore the mandatory evacuation order and began living on his land again. In his youth, he’d been part of the Japanese student movement and this experience informed him as he poured his energy into the anti-nuclear campaign: he hauled his irradiated cattle down to the Ministry of Agriculture and made impassioned speeches in Shibuya and Sendai, attempting to raise awareness of the plight of farmers and ranchers around Fukushima Daiichi. His land, which he renamed the Ranch of Hope, became a hub for activists and environmentally-minded volunteers, who came to support him and help take care of the cows.
Then in June of this year, Tamotsu Baba, Namie’s three-term mayor, resigned. He had stomach cancer and, two weeks after stepping down, he passed away in a hospital in Fukushima City. A special election was scheduled for August 5 and Yoshizawa declared his intention to run.
He withdrew his membership from the Japanese Communist Party and created his own group, the Organization for a Hopeful Namie, though his politics retained a radical tinge. He promised to force TEPCO to increase damage payments by 50 percent and to support local farmers by using the town’s contaminated fields to grow rice for use in ethanol. He railed against the Abe administration’s plan to hold the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and decried the sunnier visions of the recovery effort: in his view, no more than half the town’s residents would ever return. “As a town, Namie is finished,” he often said during his speech, suggesting that the population would dip below 10,000. “In the future, Namie will be a village.”
In some ways, Yoshizawa’s policy positions were less important than his stance toward the recovery effort. Of the 17,791 officially registered residents, only 777 have returned to live in the few dozen square kilometers where the evacuation order has been lifted; thus, being mayor of Namie effectively means being the leader of a town that exists mostly on paper. More than anything, the election was a way of gauging the mood of the voters, most of whom had been evacuated from their home for over seven years.
This was a point Yoshizawa stressed to the TEPCO employees, who were heading out of the office to enjoy their Premium Friday: “We can’t go home! You have houses to return to, places to work. But we can’t return to Namie. Our town is ruined, our lives are crushed.”
The following day, Yoshizawa campaigned in his home prefecture. After the evacuation, Namie’s residents had been dispersed across the prefecture, with the bulk winding up in Fukushima City, Nihonmatsu, Koriyama and Minamisoma. Evacuees initially lived in hastily constructed temporary housing, but facing the prolonged recovery effort ahead, the prefectural government built “recovery homes” — apartments and blocks of single-family houses — and is now moving the nuclear refugees into these units.
Late in the afternoon, Yoshizawa’s car pulled up to a series of oblong three-story buildings. He stepped out, placed a plastic milk crate upside-down on the sidewalk, and stood on it as he launched into his stump speech.
Three volunteers working for his campaign watched for anyone who stepped outside to listen to him or who happened to be crossing the parking lot as he spoke. If they spotted a potential voter, the volunteers sprinted to them — even if this involved several flights of stairs — and handed them a flyer, asking for their vote.
As Yoshizawa’s rhetoric echoed through one corner of the apartment complex, a white van pulled up to the opposite corner, and a man with a bullhorn got out. Kazuhiro Yoshida had been the head of the former mayor’s support group and was Yoshizawa’s only opponent in the election. Like Yoshizawa, he was deeply tanned, with rough features and a straightforward manner. But unlike his rival, Yoshida’s message was one of continuity: the handpicked successor of the previous mayor, with connections to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, he promised to press forward with the recovery plans, such as they were. He spoke optimistically about reconstructing Namie and rebuilding a local economy based on agriculture and fishing.
Yoshida’s quasi-incumbent status was confirmed by the sparse nature of his campaign. He had no flyers or banners, not even a business card to hand out to inquiring media-types. No volunteers flanked him, and, if you removed the references to disaster and recovery, his policy proposals could’ve been meant for any struggling town in Tohoku: create a safe and secure environment, support the elderly and so on.
These contrasts were not lost on the handful of voters who spilled out of the apartment blocks to listen to campaign speeches. One former store owner in her 60s planned on voting for Yoshida, and was realistic about the future: “I think I won’t ever go back… Still, I want them to make a town where it’s easy to live again.” A middle-aged man from the coastal district of Ukedo said his vote wasn’t decided, but that the most important thing for him was stability.
Meanwhile, many of Yoshizawa’s voters were more inclined toward extremes of optimism or despair. Yoko Konno, who had owned a salon in Namie’s Gogendo district, wasn’t planning to move back, as her children had relocated and she needed to be near a hospital so she could get treatment for her heart condition: “There’s no one left in Namie.” By contrast, Shiba, the head of the residents’ association in a different public housing block, said, “I want to go back. We need to make a new plan though.”
Yoshizawa’s volunteers were a collection of journalists, animal lovers and activists. The campaign was a kind of traveling, temporary family, and, as with any middle-class Japanese household, lunchtime was likely to find them in a family restaurant, as was the case two days before the election, when they stopped at a tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) place in a residential neighborhood of Koriyama.
Most of the team was drawn from Ranch of Hope volunteers, like Masakane Kinomura, a photographer for the Asia Press Front, who had first learned about Masami Yoshizawa and the Ranch of Hope through a fellow journalist. He pointed across the table with his chopsticks at a volunteer named Monguchi, “I was coming back from the ranch and she picked me up in her taxi in Tokyo.”
She brushed a braid of dyed red hair behind her shoulder. “When I picked him up, I thought he was just some tired middle-aged man. But then the way he talked about caring for these 300 cows. I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell he was a good person.”
Originally from Osaka, she had never volunteered until the Kumamoto earthquake damaged her grandmother’s house. After her first experience, she wanted to do more to help, but Kyushu was too far. She had always loved animals — a quality which helped her connect with pet-owning voters — and the chance to be close to the cattle led her to the Ranch of Hope.
Next to Monguchi was Ohamazaki, an outside political consultant and the only paid member of the campaign staff. With the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up and his tie pulled away from his collar, he exuded a sense of business. “I’ve worked with the Liberal Democrats, Communists, Independents. Over 200 elections.” With his help, he believed Yoshizawa could win as many as six in ten voters, though turnout would be low. In the previous mayoral election, over half of Namie’s residents had voted, but he believed the percentage would fall in the summer’s election. “People have moved here and there, so it’ll be closer to 40 percent.”
On this point, Ohamazaki proved right, as 43 percent of residents went to the polls. However, the result of the election would fall against his client, with 80 percent of voters opting for the stability offered by Kazuhiro Yoshida. Despite all they’ve been through (or perhaps because of it) Namie’s voters weren’t interested in a new, more confrontational approach. In some ways, the story of this mayoral election in the exclusion zone, echoes one of the problems facing the Japanese political left as a whole: an inability to show voters — even those who are disenchanted with the status quo — how a narrative of resistance and change will impact their lives for the better.
In the weeks since the election, Masami Yoshizawa has returned to his ranch, where he herds his irradiated cattle over the green hills of Fukushima. Namie Town heads into its eighth year of recovery, its future suspended in uncertainty, with no end in sight.

October 13, 2018 Posted by | Fukushima 2018 | , , | Leave a comment

An election campaign in an unknown town

31/7/2017 by Mayumi MATSUMURA

Yesterday morning, while I was waiting with my mother-in-law the pickup bus from the Day Care Center for the Elderly, I heard voices approaching. They seemed to say “Good morning” using a loudspeaker attached to an advertising car.


However, the voices were weak, considering that they came from a loudspeaker. They also seemed very reserved and embarrassed to disturb people. (Translator’s note: In Japan during the election time, candidates and their teams roam the streets in vehicles shouting their names and asking for support). I listened. The voices said: “Good morning, I am XXXX, candidate for the election of the mayor of Tomioka”.


The voices were really reserved, weak …

They made me so sad. Profoundly moved, I opened the kitchen window and waved my hands.

The first car stopped.

The voice said, “Oh, thank you, thank you. ”


“Courage and good luck! I’m sorry, I’m not from Tomioka, but … ” I said.

A voice replied, “Thank you, thank you for your words of support.”


I waved my hands and shouted words of encouragement to the second and third vehicle where the candidate was seated.

My eyes were filled with tears.

They run an election campaign in an unknown city, without knowing where the residents of Tomioka are, where their voters took refuge.



If it were their own town, they would campaign with dignity from the electoral car in a loud voice. But they were belittling themselves, roaming through the unknown streets.


Tears have troubled the visions.

However, I continued to wave my hands until the vehicles disappeared.

It has been 6 years and 4 months since we left our home.

There will never be a restful end to our journey.



On July 28, 2017 published on Facebook by Mrs. Mayumi MATSUMURA, evacuee from the town of Namie, Fukushima prefecture.


July 31, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment

Mayor in rural Japan who supports construction of nuclear plant wins fourth term


OMA, AOMORI PREF. – The mayor of Oma, Aomori Prefecture, who supports the construction of a local nuclear plant, was elected Sunday to a fourth term, defeating three first-time candidates.

The victory by Mitsuharu Kanazawa, a 66-year-old independent, came in the first mayoral voting in Oma in 16 years. In each of the past three races, he was handed a new four-year term since he ran unopposed.

Voter turnout came to 78.89 percent.

The main election issue was the ongoing project by Electric Power Development Co., better known as J-Power, to construct a nuclear plant in the town, with the start of operations slated for around fiscal 2024.

During the campaign, Kanazawa attracted voter support by highlighting the job-creation potential if the plant is constructed ahead of schedule.

Of the three challengers, Naofumi Nozaki, 61, a former town official, said Oma should not rely fully on the nuclear plant, while Hideki Sasaki, 67, called for a referendum on whether to go ahead with the project. The third, Atsuko Kumagai, 62, called outright for the project to be canceled.

Kanazawa garnered 2,081 votes while Nozaki gained 1,523. Sasaki received 79 votes and Kumagai got 34.

January 16, 2017 Posted by | Japan | , , , | Leave a comment

Nuclear plant construction at center of town’s first mayoral race in 16 years

 Atsuko Kumagai, owner of Asako House is one of the candidates!



AOMORI – Official campaigning began Tuesday for the first mayoral election in 16 years in the town of Oma, Aomori Prefecture, with four candidates battling it out over whether an under-construction nuclear plant is good for the community.

Voters will cast ballots Sunday for the first time since January 2001. The current mayor, Mitsuharu Kanazawa, 66, faced no challengers in the three previous elections.

Kanazawa, who is seeking re-election once again, supports the early completion of the nuclear plant that Electric Power Development Co., more commonly known as J-Power, started building in 2008 on the coast of the Tsugaru Strait between Aomori and Hokkaido.



Two of the three other candidates oppose the construction, which was suspended in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. The plant’s targeted start for commercial operation is currently set for fiscal 2024.

One of the candidates is Hideki Sasaki, 67, a former member of the municipal assembly in Hakodate, Hokkaido, located about 30 km across the Tsugaru Strait from the construction site. Sakaki, who moved to Oma, opposes the construction.



Another is Atsuko Kumagai, 62, the head of a citizens’ group who owns land near the construction site. She also objects to the plant’s construction and proposes reinvigorating the town through fishing and tourism.



The final candidate is Naofumi Nozaki, a 61-year-old former Oma town official. He has criticized the current town administration for excessive dependence on government nuclear power plant subsidies and has pledged to restore the town’s fiscal health and revitalize the local community.

January 10, 2017 Posted by | Japan | , , , , | Leave a comment

Pro-Nuclear Candidate Wins in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Plant Host City


Pro-nuclear candidate wins mayoral race in plant host city

KASHIWAZAKI, NIIGATA PREF. – A candidate who pledged to conditionally approve the restart of the world’s biggest nuclear power plant has been elected mayor of Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture.

Masahiro Sakurai, a 54-year-old former member of the city’s assembly, on Sunday defeated Eiko Takeuchi, 47, a former municipal employee who opposes the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex on the Sea of Japan coast.

During the campaign, Sakurai said he would not reject a restart of the power plant if Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. takes into account the opinions of nearby residents and ensures the facility’s safety.

He was supported by the Liberal Democratic Party and local businesses.

Takeuchi promised not to accept the plant restart, saying it will expose the public to danger. She had official support from the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

Speaking with reporters Monday morning, Sakurai repeated his pledge to gradually reduce dependence on nuclear power but that he sees value in the plant operating for a certain period of time.

He also referred to decommissioning some of the reactors, saying the process should create jobs in the city.

It remains uncertain whether Tepco will be able to resume operation of the plant due to opposition from Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama, who was elected in October.

An agreement, though nonbinding, between the utility, Kashiwazaki and Niigata Prefecture is essential to restart the nuclear power station.

The power station straddles Kashiwazaki and the village of Kariwa.

Kariwa Mayor Hiroo Shinada, who supports restarting the plant, was handed a fifth term Nov. 15 when no one ran against him.

Whether to restart nuclear facilities has dominated several local elections across Japan, especially since the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

Reactors 6 and 7 at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant are boiling water units, the same type that suffered core meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1, raising safety fears.

If all of its seven units are in operation, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is the world’s largest nuclear power complex, boasting a combined output capacity of around 8.2 million kilowatts.

Mayoral candidate in Japan campaigning to bring world’s biggest nuke plant back online set to be elected: exit polls

A pro-nuclear power advocate who campaigned on a platform of rebooting the world’s largest nuclear power plant is placed to win the mayoral election in the Japanese City of Kashiwazaki, in Niigata Prefecture, exit polls reported by local media showed Sunday.

According to Kyodo News, Masahiro Sakurai, 54, who formerly worked for the city council in Kashiwazaki, will become mayor, having beaten his opponent Eiko Takeuchi, 47, a former employee of the city, who stood in opposition of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear complex being restarted.

Despite the likely win for Sakurai however and his plans to bring the mega-plant on the Sea of Japan back on-line, the plant’s utility may not get the green light to restart its idled reactors, as a month earlier Ryuichi Yoneyama, an anti-nuclear candidate, won the gubernatorial election in Niigata Prefecture.

Yoneyama winning the race was a major blow to Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling administration, who favors bringing the nation’s nuclear power plants, idled in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, back online, as he has unequivocally stated that he will not accept the plant being restarted.

“Let me clearly say that I cannot accept the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant under the current circumstances where I cannot protect people’s lives and live as I have promised,” Yoneyama was quoted as saying to his supporters recently, with reference to major concerns in the area over the plant’s checkered safety record.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station that Sakurai wants to reboot is located in the towns of Kashiwazaki and Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan, and was central to Yoneyama’s winning campaign, with incumbent Gov. Hirohiko Izumida, who was not seeking reelection, also voicing skepticism over the safety of the plant’s restart.

For the power station, with a potential output of 8.2 million kilowatts making it the largest in the world to be restarted, an accord has to be struck between the city, the prefecture and the utility, with Yoneyama likely to be the bottle-neck.

Safety concerns have been rife in the region as the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant’s Nos. 6 and 7 units use the same boiling water technique as the reactors at TEPCO’s Daiichi plant in Fukushima that suffered multiple meltdowns in 2011, leading to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant itself has been no stranger to accidents and controversy and in 2007 an earthquake caused reactors at the plant to catch fire and leak radioactive materials. As with Fukushima Daiichi, the plant is also owned and operated by the embattled Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which is currently under state control.

Following TEPCO’s numerous coverups, continued misinformation and other monumental gaffes related to the ongoing Fukushima disaster, public opinion towards the utility, and, by default, the government here, has remained indignant and distrusting.

Pro-reactor restart candidate wins mayoral race

Voters in a Japanese city that hosts an offline nuclear power plant have chosen their new mayor. Independent Masahiro Sakurai conditionally supports plans to restart the plant.
He defeated the only other candidate, who opposes the restart, in the election in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, on Sunday.
Sakurai endorses the plan to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant with some conditions, including ensuring its safety. He also insists that the number of nuclear plants needs to be reduced in the future.
During his campaign, Sakurai said the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, as well as the central government should play a proactive role in preventing nuclear disasters. He promised to work for necessary legal revisions.
Sakurai also urged the city to overcome the division regarding the restart.
He garnered support from local business leaders and many municipal assembly members.
Last month, a candidate with a cautious stance toward the restart won the election to become the prefecture’s governor.

November 21, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment

Mayoral race kicks off in nuke plant host city of Kashiwazaki


Masahiro Sakurai (left), a former Kashiwazaki city assemblyman, and Eiko Takeuchi, a former Kashiwazaki municipal government worker, kick off campaigning Sunday for a mayoral race set for Nov. 20.

Campaigning for the mayoral race in the city of Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, kicked off  Sunday, with two candidates locking horns over whether to approve the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant.

Masahiro Sakurai, 54, a former Kashiwazaki city assemblyman, and Eiko Takeuchi, 47, a former Kashiwazaki municipal government worker, registered their candidacies in the Nov. 20 election to choose a successor to incumbent Mayor Hiroshi Aida, who decided not to see a fourth term.

Sakurai said he would approve the restart of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s nuclear plant if assured of Kashiwazaki citizens’ safety.

Takeuchi, backed by the opposition Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party, however, has said she would demand that the plant, which straddles Kashiwazaki and the village of Kariwa, be left offline.

Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama, who is reluctant to allow the plant to resume operations, won the gubernatorial election last month.

Mayoral race kicks off in nuke plant host city of Kashiwazaki

November 19, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment