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Opinion

Shinjiro Koizumi is poised to lead Japan's clean-energy revolution

Youthful and handsome new environment minister can supplant nuclear power

Koizumi's real impact could be rebooting Abe's economic reform ambitions. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

Rarely has a single politician so embodied the aspirations, fears and cynicism of a nation as Japan's Shinjiro Koizumi.

The telegenic son of a popular former prime minister seems to mix the most dashing and optimistic parts of leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Tony Blair -- before the Iraq War -- and Justin Trudeau -- before his current racism scandal.

In naming Koizumi as environment minister, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clearly hoped the 38-year-old's star power would reinvigorate a government devoid of energy, and perhaps even set up a succession plan that excites voters.

As modernizers go, Koizumi is already delighting the masses. When his wife, TV personality Christel Takigawa, gives birth to their child, Koizumi may take paternity leave -- a rarity in work-obsessed Japan. He favors greater gender balance in the developed world's most paternalistic society.

But Koizumi's real impact could be rebooting Abe's economic reform ambitions.

Like his father Junichiro, Koizumi favors shifting Japan's energy mix from nuclear power to renewables. Whether he prevails is an open question. But Tokyo may be on the cusp of the biggest transformation of the Abe era: an energy pivot that creates new wealth, jobs and a brighter economic future.

Shinjiro Koizumi and Christel Takigawa talk to reporters on Aug. 7 in Tokyo after announcing their engagement. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

It will not be simple. The Japanese have long fancied their nation a leader in sustainability -- it was home, after all, to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol climate-change deal. It was quite a reality check, then, when Japan was effectively barred from speaking at this week's U.N. Climate Summit in New York because Tokyo's increasing coal use is out of step with the global mood.

Koizumi did not help things in New York with comments that critics claim validated fears he is more style than substance. His talk of making the climate change debate "sexy" and "fun" earned broad ridicule on social media. So did hawking Tokyo's talking point that "clean coal" is a real thing.

Let us, however, dare to dream for a moment. Koizumi could be the best hope Japan has had in the Abe era to thrust the economy into the 21st century.

Since he became prime minister in December 2012, Abe has been acting more according to the 1985 economic playbook -- mostly supporting big exporters and toying with trickle-down economies -- than from one which will prepare the workforce for the economy of 2025. Abe relied on a sharp yen depreciation to boost exports, but did little to boost competitiveness or incentivize a startup boom.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's pro-nuclear bent is partly to blame. Abe's party has long been captive to the "nuclear village." This nexus of pro-reactor politicians, executives and academics is Japan's answer to the military-industrial complex that warps the U.S. government's incentive structure.

The 18 months before Abe's return to power were truly frightening for the nuclear industry. In 2009, the LDP had lost power to the Democratic Party of Japan, which presided over a giant earthquake in March 2011. The resulting nuclear crisis at Fukushima shuttered all 54 of Japan's reactors and had the DPJ plotting a nuclear-free future.

Abe's win preserved the status quo. The LDP gradually brought reactors back online despite opposition from a public traumatized by Fukushima. Nuclear power is neither cheap nor clean nor safe in a land all too vulnerable to seismic shocks and tsunamis.

A post-leadership change of heart led former Prime Minister Koizumi to a "zero nuclear power" position, and he has argued in recent years that banning reactors is as much about economic revival as safety.

Tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, pictured on Mar. 1: nuclear power is neither cheap nor clean nor safe in a land vulnerable to seismic shocks and tsunamis. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

"Japan can grow if the country relies more on renewable energy," he said in a September 2016 speech and on many occasions since. In other words, supporting a new generation of startups would create scores of high-paying jobs.

Few economies are better positioned for the biggest economic opportunity anywhere: devising and marketing ways for China, India, Indonesia and other nascent giants to avoid choking on rapid growth. When Tesla's Elon Musk set up his $5 billion lithium-ion gigafactory in 2014, one of his first calls was to Panasonic to partner with its cutting-edge battery unit.

Abe's team -- now led by Shinjiro Koizumi -- should incentivize Japan Inc. to direct research and development efforts toward renewables. That would help rekindle Japan's innovative animal spirits and increase its sparse stable of tech "unicorns."

So much of what Japan does well is being copied elsewhere. China, South Korea and India are making cars and investing in electronics, robotics and biotechnologies. The wide available space is to invent cleaner methods to power everything from airplanes and cars to homes, rail networks and ships.

This creates an opening for Koizumi. "We are committed," he said, "to realizing a decarbonized society, and we are ready to contribute as a more powerful country in the fight against climate change."

Koizumi can fight other battles, too. The Columbia University graduate is right to call Japan's gender mores "old fashioned" and "rigid." On Abe's watch, Tokyo has fallen from 101st in 2012 to 110th place in 2018 on the World Economic Forum's gender-equality index. Koizumi could be just the male role model Japan Inc. needs.

But the easier opportunity is to cajole Abe's government to modernize Japan's energy mix to fuel an economic boom. What could be sexier than that?

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

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