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Japan maglev critic reelected in Shizuoka, claiming green mandate

Governor's victory casts uncertainty over rail line already behind schedule

A prototype maglev train sits at a testing center in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan.   © Kyodo

SHIZUOKA, Japan/NAGOYA, Japan/TOKYO -- A Japanese governor whose environmental concerns have held up construction on a segment of ultrahigh-speed-rail project worth more than $60 billion won reelection Sunday, securing a fourth term.

Heita Kawakatsu, who ran as an independent, defeated a challenger backed by Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Shizuoka Prefecture, home to the most-photographed face of Mount Fuji southwest of Tokyo.

Kawakatsu, 72, framed his reelection campaign around Central Japan Railway's Chuo Shinkansen project, a magnetic levitation rail line that will connect Tokyo and Nagoya in around 40 minutes. His victory could push back the scheduled start of service on the line, now set for 2027 but likely to be delayed.

"I have been entrusted to protect the waters of the Southern Alps, protect the environment," Kawakatsu said in his victory speech. "I will work hard to find a path to a solution."

The governor told a news conference he wanted a "scientific discussion" on his concerns that tunneling for the project will sap the flow of the Oi River and other water sources. He vowed to have an "open discussion" with Central Japan Railway, also known as JR Central, to keep the public informed.

Heita Kawakatsu celebrates his reelection as Shizuoka Prefecture governor on June 20.   © Kyodo

Construction of the railway is underway in other segments, but Kawakatsu has not approved work on a tunnel section in Shizuoka Prefecture. The tunnel crosses Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Nagano prefectures, cutting through a mountain chain known as the Southern Alps.

A JR Central spokesperson declined to comment on the election result Sunday but said the company would "continue to work to ease people's concerns over the Oi River basin" while respecting the findings of a panel commissioned by the national government.

Draft findings published in March by the panel, established under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, said any loss of downstream water flow from tunnel-boring would be "extremely small." Kawakatsu has suggested that he may not accept the panel's eventual findings.

In April, JR Central said it now expected construction of the Tokyo-Nagoya line to cost 7 trillion yen ($63 billion), up 1.5 trillion yen from a previous estimate.

Construction on the line began in 2014. Plans call for eventually extending it to Osaka as early as 2037.

Kawakatsu first submitted his concerns to JR Central in 2017. Talks in 2020 between Kawakatsu and JR Central's president and officials at the ministry failed to produce a breakthrough.

The candidate defeated by Kawakatsu, former LDP lawmaker Shigeki Iwai, was a former vice minister at the ministry.

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