Japanese executives aren't known for bucking the establishment. Hiroshi Mikitani is a rare exception at a time when rebellion is most needed.
The president of Rakuten, Japan's biggest online retailer, turned 46 on March 11. That was the day when a record earthquake and tsunami set off the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and forever changed the way Japanese view the reactors in their midst. Almost five months later, the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant is still leaking radioactivity.
A growing majority of the nation's 127 million people want a future devoid of radiation-contaminated air and food, and who can blame them? Forget it, says corporate Japan. The economy will collapse if we give up on nuclear power.
Count Mikitani among those who disagree. He recently quit Japan's main business lobby, Nippon Keidanren, to protest its support of the energy status quo. Good for him. Japan needs to harness power from safer sources, but the government lacks the courage to seek them. So, the private sector is filling the void — a rare event in Japan.
Most notable is Masayoshi Son, the 53-year-old chief executive officer of Softbank Corp. The billionaire first cracked the monopolies that dominated Japan's telecommunications industry. Now he's shaking up the utilities market with plans to invest about $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) to build 10 solar farms.
Granted, Prime Minister Naoto Kan would like to take on the alliance of politicians, bureaucrats and power companies promoting the nuclear industry. He has even proposed a halt to plans for 14 new reactors. Yet he is a short-timer; he pledged to step down once emergency-funding bills are passed.
It is naive to think the forces arrayed against Kan aren't playing a role in his demise. More than any leader, Kan has taken on the nuclear-industrial complex, Japan's answer to the nexus of business and the military in the US. Expect the knives to be out for any leader with reformist sensibilities.
The industry's allies are rallying to maintain the supremacy of nuclear power. A huge scare campaign is under way to convince voters that living standards will shrivel if Japan de-emphasises atomic energy. Before the Fukushima disaster, the industry provided about 30 per cent of Japan's electricity. The plan was for that to rise to 53 per cent by 2030. The earthquake changed all that.
The bigger irony is how the only nation ever to be attacked by nuclear weapons — and the one with the most seismic activity — so enthusiastically embraced a nuclear future. If the last five months taught us anything, it's the need to reconsider.
No one is saying turn off all the reactors; the $5 trillion (Dh18.36 trillion) economy has enough problems. Yet Japan needs an explosion of fresh ideas, innovation and investment to become less reliant on reactors.
A recurring question in Tokyo has been: Who put Homer Simpson in charge? Japan's nuclear safety record these last 15 years seems no sounder than that of the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, where on The Simpsons, Homer is head of safety. Only, this is no laughing matter.
Alternative energy is an obvious chance for Japan to lead the world. Deflation and excessive debt cost Japan its economic vitality, especially as China thundered ahead to become the world's second-biggest economy. Credit Suisse Group AG, Switzerland's second-largest bank, recently stopped bothering to cover Japanese banks.
For all its economic sclerosis, Japan is a role model when it comes to energy efficiency. This can be seen in Tokyo's ability to avoid blackouts without Fukushima's reactors providing power to the city. Japan should act fast to assert itself as the dominant power in clean energy, solar technology and storage batteries. It would create jobs, wealth and international prestige. Sadly, Tokyo's political class is preoccupied with internal, shortsighted squabbles. The good news is that the private sector is pushing ahead on its own. Mikitani's boycott of the powerful Nippon Keidanren is a case in point.
The efforts by Softbank's Son are even more important. His $1 billion pledge is contingent upon getting access to transmission networks and regional utilities buying his electricity. As of July 27, a total of 17 big Japanese cities jumped on the alternative-to-nuclear bandwagon, the Asahi newspaper reported.