TOKYO — The rejection by residents of Maki in a local referendum last weekend of a planned nuclear power plant is hardly a sea change in attitudes toward Japan's nuclear industry, coming as it does at the end of a 27-year battle to keep the town nuclear free.
More significantly perhaps, it marks a turning point in the relationship between high-handed central government bureaucrats and the will of the people.
While it is impossible to extrapolate the result to reflect the views of 123 million Japanese, it is true that the 30,000 inhabitants of the sleepy town in Niigata prefecture, 150 miles north of Tokyo, are divided in much the same way - though not necessarily in the same ratio - as the rest of the country. Advocates include pragmatists who say nuclear power is essential in a country devoid of natural power resources such as oil and coal. Those who oppose nuclear power do so out of fear of environmental disaster, or on the more emotive grounds that this is the same technology that was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to such lethal effects 51 years ago this week.
Under its long-term nuclear- energy policy announced in 1994, Japan aims to increase its nuclear-power production capacity to 40.2 percent of its energy needs by 2010. The country's 49 nuclear power stations currently supply about 30 percent of the nation's energy requirements.
The government concedes that target is now more "difficult," as an alternative site for one of the six planned nuclear power stations will almost certainly have to be found, but it has yet to admit outright defeat. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto attributed the outcome to the fact that "the entire nuclear-energy policy has not yet been well understood," but he also stressed that Japan has "no alternative to the new energy policy," and that referendums were "different from government policy."
Indeed, the Maki referendum does highlight the point that central planning so often flies in the face of local public opinion, and the material benefit of the great majority of urban dwellers at no risk to their environment - barring catastrophic earthquakes - comes at the perceived environmental detriment of a minority which has had no say up till now.
"Thorny issues such as the location of nuclear plants and troubles in operation have always been passed onto a certain region. How much have residents in major cities, who are the beneficiaries, shared in the suffering?" asked an editorial in the daily Asahi Shimbun.
According to a post-referendum opinion poll by the TBS television station, 85 percent of Japanese people support Maki-style local referendums as the means to decide important issues such as energy or security policy.
Yet while referendums are not legally binding in Japan, the Maki vote could start a trend that the government will find hard to resist with less than 12 months to go before the next general elections. Four other towns - Kubokawa, Nanto, Kisei, and Kushima - are also set to vote on the fate of proposed local nuclear projects, while in Okinawa on Sept. 8 people will vote in a referendum on whether to reduce the US military presence.
"Politically, the central government and the Niigata prefectural government cannot neglect the outcome, so other people who do not want nuclear plants in their area will follow Maki's way to register opposition to national policy," says Akio Igarashi, a law professor at Rikkyo University.
"It's very impressive," Mr. Igarashi says It will be the turning point for democracy in Japan."