THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
The city news desk phone rang around noon on Nov. 12. It was picked up by a rookie reporter who joined The Asahi Shimbun last spring.
The caller said, “This is Junichiro Koizumi. Is Okubo-san in?”
Taken aback, the rookie told him haltingly that I was out chasing a story. “Then, please convey her my best regards and thanks for mentioning my statement in her column,” the former prime minister said, and hung up.
Two days before this call, I had written in this column about a damages suit brought against the Japanese government by Japanese settlers in the Dominican Republic, who claimed they had been lied to by the government.
Although the government won the lawsuit in 2006, Koizumi, who was prime minister at the time, issued a formal statement in which he apologized for the “immense suffering (of the settlers) due to the government’s response at the time.” This resulted in the government reversing its stance on the issue and paying compensation to the plaintiffs as well as non-plaintiff migrants.
I commented in my column, “Unless a politician gives directions, bureaucrats would not budge. That is the reality in Japan.”
I wonder if my words struck the right chord in Koizumi, who at the time was urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to end our country’s reliance on nuclear power generation.
Koizumi had turned down an interview request for my column. But after I sent him a letter thanking him for the phone call, Koizumi had a mutual acquaintance contact me and relay his invitation that the three of us get together for dinner.
“This is not an interview,” the acquaintance stressed, reminding me that Koizumi has not granted a single request for an interview or TV appearance since he stepped down as prime minister. But there was a question I just had to ask him, face to face. The question was, “Why have you become such a vocal opponent of nuclear power generation now?”
He was a staunch proponent of nuclear power generation while he was prime minister. His argument was that if our country is to curb carbon dioxide emissions, we cannot do away with nuclear power generation.
Greeting me jovially as he came to our table, Koizumi looked way more youthful than his 71 years. As soon as he was seated, he said, “I have a cousin living in Brazil, who’s had as hard a time as those settlers in the Dominican Republic did. We know the government told bold-faced lies to those people (who migrated to the Dominican Republic).”
When Koizumi made a state visit to Brazil in 2004, Japanese immigrants gave him such a warm welcome that he was overwhelmed with deep emotion, and broke down and cried. He recalled how he choked up when he thought of the feelings of those expats.
I felt convinced that Koizumi’s “defection” from the pro-nuke camp to the anti-nuke camp must also have been caused by some deeply emotional experience. So, I asked him, “What was the biggest reason for your change of heart?”
Looking me squarely in the eye, Koizumi launched into a voluble spiel.
“Denjiren (the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan) has been telling a pack of lies,” he began. “When experts say nuclear power generation is safe and doesn’t cost much and this is the only way to go if we want to stop relying on coal, well, we believe them. But they’ve been lying to us for years. And the point is, we’ve never really known anything about nuclear power generation. We had little interest in it before 3/11, and we certainly had no idea how difficult it is to control nuclear energy.”
“You felt you were taken for a ride?” I ventured. “That’s it. Exactly,” he replied.
Wow. So, he switched sides when he realized he had been deceived by bureaucrats and nuclear experts. I was reminded of victims of fraud. I then tried a number of times to get him to say something about victims of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, but I struck out there.
Anyway, here was a man who held Japan’s highest political office for five and a half years, lamenting now–and openly admitting–that he’d been lied to.
When you think about it, Japan is really a dreadful country where critical information is deliberately withheld from the prime minister who determines the fate of the country, and even he is made to believe the “myth” of nuclear safety. I felt I could understand Koizumi’s defection as a person.
Koizumi’s “zero-nuke” statement gained national attention in late August, when Takao Yamada, a senior writer at The Mainichi Shimbun, mentioned it in his column.
Koizumi recalled, “That reminded me anew of the power of newspapers. I mean, I’d been saying the same thing in my twice- or three-times-a-month lecture meetings (before Yamada’s column came out), but my comments were completely ignored. The column must’ve made it impossible to ignore them anymore.”
Koizumi was quoted in Yamada’s column as saying, “In a battle, the most difficult part is the final phase, namely, the withdrawal … During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan should have pulled out of Manchuria, but couldn’t. In our present age, the business community says the Japanese economy can’t grow without nuclear power generation, but that’s not true. And back during the Sino-Japanese War, Manchuria was said to be Japan’s lifeline. But look at Japan now. We’ve grown and prospered without Manchuria, haven’t we?”
I asked writer Kazutoshi Hando, 83, an expert on the Showa Era (1926-1989), for his take on Koizumi’s “zero-nuke” remarks.
“I detest Koizumi,” Hando said. “When he was prime minister, I felt his political style was the same as Adolf Hitler’s before the Nazis seized power. That said, however, Koizumi’s zero-nuke remarks fully stand to reason, and I think his observation concerning Manchuria is right on the money.”
Hando went on to explain that after winning the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Japan sought to join the ranks of the great powers in order to protect the interests it had acquired through that war. As a result, the Korean Peninsula became Japan’s territory of interest, to protect which the Japanese government made Manchuria its “lifeline,” citing natural resources, population problems and other reasons for doing so.
“Seen in the light of modern history, perhaps nuclear power generation and Manchuria share the same meaning,” Hando noted. “In the past, holding on to Manchuria led to Japan’s doom. In the days ahead, holding on to nuclear power generation may lead to Japan’s doom.”
The dinner with Koizumi went on for nearly three hours, during which our conversation topics ranged from movies, books, golf and the theater. When it was time to say good-bye, I tried to present him with a bouquet of 30 red roses I’d brought. But he firmly and politely declined, saying it was his strict policy not to accept gifts.
When I told him I was going to write about our dinner meeting, Koizumi laughed, raised a hand in farewell, and left.
Maki Okubo is a senior staff writer of The Asahi Shimbun.