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Politics

Tokyo Gov. Koike's pet projects leave Japan Inc. hesitant

Underground power lines, other reform proposals face heaps of red tape

Power lines over a street in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- Corporate Japan is skeptical about the reform proposals of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who won big in the metropolitan assembly election Sunday, waiting to embrace potential business until the new leadership proves it can get results.

The same Tokyo street as above, after the power lines were buried underground.

As Koike has long vowed to move Tokyo's cluttered power lines underground, share prices rose in tandem Monday for power line makers including Sumitomo Electric Industries and Furukawa Electric. But not all the manufacturers celebrated. Moving the lines for Tokyo-administered prefectural roads alone is seen costing around 800 billion yen ($7.05 billion), and some parties who would shoulder the burden may not be able to afford it, raising the possibility that the project will end up all talk.

The utility poles and power lines belong to companies including Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings unit TEPCO Power Grid and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone unit NTT East. Should the municipal government embark on the power line project, those two private companies would bear around a third of the cost. But Tepco in particular is on the hook for staggering reparations and other costs related to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, and it is unclear whether the company has any leeway to spend on such a venture.

Formula fuss

Another goal of Koike's Tomin First no Kai party is promoting liquid baby formula, which is sterilized at high heat and can be stored at room temperature, and does not require hot water, unlike most powdered formula. Companies including Switzerland's Nestle and France's Danone make the substance in the West, and many have called for it to be introduced to Japan in order to help ease child care and prepare for disasters.

But major domestic makers of baby formula including Meiji Holdings unit Meiji, Morinaga Milk Industry and Megmilk Snow Brand are not making liquid formula. Industry groups have requested that the national government set standards for making the product, and the process has finally begun, but it will likely take some time. Moreover, with Japan's birthrate declining, the dairy industry is already worried about baby formula becoming less profitable, and whether it will invest vast sums in liquid formula is unclear.

Flush with opportunity?

Tomin First has also proposed installing more Western-style seated toilets, rather than squat toilets, in public spaces such as train stations, parks and schools, seeking to make them easier to use for everyone, including foreign visitors. Koike earmarked 3.7 billion yen for the project in Tokyo's budget for fiscal 2017.

At present, Western-style toilets sit in just 54% of the capital's public elementary and middle schools and about 40% of train stations operated by Tokyo's transportation bureau. Japanese-style squat toilets occupy most of the rest. The plan is to have seated toilets in about 80% of those schools and 90% of the stations by fiscal 2020, and to bring them to city and marine parks as well.

This project may provide toilet makers a boom in business. A public relations official for Toto, the country's largest such manufacturer, said the company would refrain from commenting on the results of the Tokyo assembly election, but added that it aims to keep "proactively working on improving toilets in public facilities and schools." Lixil Group, which makes household products including toilets, likewise said upgrading lavatory spaces was "a major theme," adding that the company is optimistic about future business.

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