In a direct act of rebellion against Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, the local government in Tokyo is moving swiftly to build a huge natural gas facility that would generate as much electricity as a nuclear reactor.
The plant would ensure a stable supply of electricity for the capital in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdowns in March at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But more important, the city government says, it could spur desperately needed change in Japan. By weakening Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, reformers hope to finally break the linchpin of the collusion between business and government that once drove Japan’s rapid postwar rise, but that now keeps it mired in stagnation.
“Now’s our chance,” said Naoki Inose, Tokyo’s vice governor, invoking an ancient proverb about attacking a wild dog only after it has fallen into a river: “On March 11, Tepco became the dog that fell into the river. Only then can you fight against such a formidable foe.”
So formidable a foe, in fact, that just eight months after Japanese leaders vowed the nuclear disaster — like the end of World War II — would lead to a kind of rebirth, the chances for fundamental change are rapidly slipping away.
Already, the reformers have lost a crucial ally: Naoto Kan, who as prime minister had called for an end to nuclear power and major changes to the power industry. He was eased out of office with the help of Japan’s most powerful corporate lobby, a faithful Tepco supporter that, like many members of Japan’s establishment, has benefited from the company’s largess.
And Mr. Kan’s successor, Yoshihiko Noda, whose party came to power promising to build a new Japan, instead joined the old guard to rally around nuclear power, and Tepco.
“In the early months after the accident, I thought there was a real chance for change, but now the move to turn Fukushima into an opportunity for radical reforms is losing steam,” said Hiroshi Okumura, an economist and the author of “Dismantling Tepco.” “There’s a very big risk that Japan’s lost decade, which became the lost 20 years, will now become the lost 30 years.”
It is difficult to overstate the influence of Tepco, which rivals the American defense industry in its domestic reach.
Thanks to a virtual monopoly and a murky electricity pricing system, it has become one of the biggest sources of loosely regulated cash for politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, who have repaid Tepco with unquestioning support and with the type of lax oversight that contributed to the nuclear crisis.
The pockets of insurgency against Tepco are being led by politicians like Mr. Inose, who successfully took on the nation’s road construction monopoly a few years ago; a team of bureaucrats who lost power after an earlier aborted attempt at energy deregulation; and some of Japan’s most innovative businessmen.
Arrayed against them are the interests that have long profited from the virtually unchallenged hold on the market enjoyed by the company and the nation’s nine other utilities. The corporate lobby, the Japan Business Federation or Keidanren, came out clearly against deregulation, leading to a public clash with one of its highest-profile members, Hiroshi Mikitani, an entrepreneur whose 14-year-old company, Rakuten, has grown into Japan’s largest online shopping mall and is rapidly expanding overseas.
Over Twitter, Mr. Mikitani, 46, said the utilities’ “monopoly and the collusion among politicians, bureaucrats, businesses and the news media” were preventing deregulation.
In leaving Keidanren, the business federation, he accused it of furthering Japan’s “Galapagosization” — a neologism signifying Japan’s growing tendency to turn inward, relying on a shrinking home market as it fails to compete globally.
Supporters of the power industry argue that deregulation will only hurt the country, blaming it for causing blackouts in countries like the United States with deregulated markets.
“The revolutionaries feel it’s fun to smash existing things,” said Yosuke Kondo, a lawmaker and a former deputy minister in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the energy sector. “Why do they feel the need to smash something that we can boast to the world about?”
The clearest sign yet that Mr. Kondo and his allies appear to have the upper hand was a recent government decision to inject $11.5 billion into Tepco, the first of many payouts needed to keep the company afloat and help it compensate the 90,000 people forced to flee areas near Fukushima Daiichi.
The bailout, which protects Tepco’s shareholders and creditors, will almost certainly require raising electricity rates. So far, the government has asked very little in return.
“I think the chances are seven to three that Tepco wins and survives completely unchanged,” said Tatsuo Hatta, an economist and supporter of deregulation. “If there’s another tsunami and another nuclear plant gets destroyed, then they’re 50-50.”
Costly for Consumers
Government policies are at the heart of Tepco’s power.
Japan, almost alone among industrialized nations, has not deregulated its energy grid, so utilities have a stranglehold on both the generation and the transmission of electricity. What is more, power companies are allowed to set electricity rates according to a complex system that includes a vast range of often unclear expenses. The more a utility spends, the more it can charge.
The policy, which was meant to further a national strategy of developing nuclear power, had the predictable effect of encouraging Tepco to overspend, according to a 230-page report released last month by a government panel investigating Tepco’s management. The panel found that Tepco — whose net income was $1.7 billion in 2009 and whose 192 plants powered a third of Japan — had a vast network of related companies to which it doled out inflated contracts. Some of those companies, in turn, arranged deals with large manufacturers, allowing them a share of the wealth.
“It’s an incredible system,” said Kaichiro Shimura, the author of “The Tepco Empire” and a former newspaper reporter who covered Tepco. “The only losers are the consumers.”
Japanese, in fact, pay on average double what Americans do for electricity.
Perhaps worse, critics say, Tepco became Japan’s biggest “cash box.” Besides paying inflated costs to other members of Keidanren that provided it with equipment or services, the company donated copious amounts to political fund-raisers, made generous donations for academic research and bought advertisements in the news media, even though it had no real competitors. Tepco also offered lucrative post-retirement jobs to bureaucrats from government ministries and the national police.
In return, few challenged Tepco’s practices, even as it became the main player in Japan’s nuclear establishment, known as the “nuclear power village.”
“Tepco lies at the center of collusion,” said Takeshi Sasaki, the former president of the University of Tokyo. “You can’t reform the nuclear power village without first fixing Tepco.”
In an interview, Toshio Nishizawa, Tepco’s chief executive, waved away such suggestions that his company had outsize influence.
“I’ve worked at Tepco for a long time, and it’s just not the case that we control this or that,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of power.”
Out to Break Monopolies
Early this month, in a northern town called Obihiro, a construction crew broke ground on a solar farm that could grow into a full-fledged revolt against Tepco and other utilities.
The farm is the first of many that Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of Softbank, the telecommunications giant, wants to build across Japan. A decade ago, Mr. Son, Japan’s richest man and widely regarded as its most iconoclastic business leader, broke the monopoly of Nippon Telegraph & Telephone.
To loosen the utilities’ grip on the power grid, he has won the backing of the governors of 33 of the 47 prefectures, who appear to be responding to growing popular sentiment against nuclear power.
That is what Tokyo is trying on a smaller scale with its natural gas plant, which city officials say will yield enough electricity to power its subway system and light many public buildings.
“At the very least, we should achieve some measure of reform,” Mr. Inose said. “Of course, because there are so many vested interests, it won’t be possible to solve everything.”
Indeed, Mr. Inose remains cautious about pursuing what many regard as the holy grail of deregulation: separating power generation and transmission, which would automatically create more companies and competition.
A previous failed attempt at change is often cited as evidence of the control wielded by Tepco and its allies. In the mid-1990s, after most industrialized nations split the two halves of the business, a small group inside the Economy Ministry tried to do the same.
Tepco and the other utilities pushed back fiercely. They reached out to the then-governing Liberal Democratic Party, said Taro Kono, a lawmaker in the party and one of its few critics of nuclear power. Tepco and Keidanren handpicked a former Tepco vice president, Tokio Kano, for one of the legislative seats the party reserves for Keidanren, and he helped quash the ministry renegades.
Keidanren declined to make any of its officials available to comment for this article. Tepco’s chief executive, Mr. Nishizawa, said keeping generation and transmission united was best for a stable power supply.
With no political support, the ministry group, led by an official named Seiji Murata, had no chance.
“Murata’s people were pushed out in a coup d’état,” said Yoshio Shioya, who has written extensively on nuclear issues.
Then came the Fukushima disaster. One of Mr. Murata’s top lieutenants, Satoshi Kusakabe, was charged with drafting a new energy policy by next summer. Mr. Kusakabe, working for the Cabinet Office, has brought back two allies from a decade ago to press forward with the separation of generation and transmission despite opposition from the ministry.
But it is unclear how much power Mr. Kusakabe’s team, which was appointed by the former prime minister, really has. Some experts say that, to placate critics of the industry and nuclear power, the government may simply mandate changes with little effect — as happened a decade ago.
An Attempt to Open Up
On paper, much of Japan’s power industry has been deregulated in the past decade. The emptiness of that deregulation, which has become increasingly evident since the Fukushima disaster, underscores the difficulties faced by current challengers.
The history makes clear that though the protection of Tepco and the industry began under the long-serving Liberal Democrats, it has continued under the Democratic Party of Japan, which grabbed power in 2009 with promises to untangle the ties between business and government.
In one effort to break the utilities’ virtual monopolies, 60 percent of Japan’s electricity market was opened up by 2005 to so-called power producers and suppliers, companies that act as brokers, buying electricity (mostly from manufacturers that generate their own) and selling it to commercial customers. A market, the Japan Electric Power Exchange, or JEPX, was established to allow wholesale trading.
But despite offering rates that are often a third cheaper than utilities’, the companies, which must depend on utilities’ transmission lines, have captured only 2 percent of the market. Reluctant to lose customers to the new companies, the utilities make it difficult for them to access their transmission networks.
When the Fukushima nuclear plant went offline in March, leaving Tepco unable to supply the Tokyo area with enough power, the new companies believed it spelled opportunity for them. Instead, the government mandated that all commercial customers — including the new companies’ customers — lower their electricity consumption by 15 percent.
That effectively left the new companies with an extra 15 percent supply. But the government offered a solution: sell to Tepco.
“In theory, we were competing,” said Tsutomu Takei, who retired in June as the chief executive of Ennet, the largest new power company. “In a real competitive market, if your rival happens to get hurt, it’s a chance for you to increase your share.”
Ennet was forced to sell its electricity directly to Tepco for a price lower than what it charged its own customers, reportedly leading to monthly losses of about $130,000.
Under another past attempt at deregulation, the other utilities were allowed to compete against Tepco and one another. But they demurred, preferring to keep their monopolies intact. And since the Fukushima disaster, the other utilities have rallied strongly behind Tepco, clearly afraid that its breakup would mean the same for them.
Those with nuclear plants even agreed to contribute $90 million to Tepco’s bailout, one of the clearest indications yet that the web of influence the company wove over the years remains intact.
“It was designed to protect the company and keep it just the way it is,” said Mr. Okumura, the author of “Dismantling Tepco.” The problem, he said, is that the bailout “isn’t just about one company.”
The battle against Tepco has evolved into a contest over the future of Japan itself.