TOKYO (AP) — The surprise entry of a 76-year-old retired prime minister-turned-potter in the Tokyo governor's race is turning the election into a virtual referendum on the future of nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan.
Morihiro Hosokawa, who led Japan two decades ago, has emerged as a front-runner, backed by another former prime minister, the hugely popular Junichiro Koizumi, one of Japan's longest-serving leaders.
Both are known as opponents of nuclear power, and a Hosokawa victory could deal a setback to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to restart Japan's nuclear power plants and export nuclear reactors.
"I have a sense of crisis that our country's survival is at stake over various problems Japan faces, particularly nuclear power," Hosokawa said last week. He has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday to lay out his platform.
The graying Koizumi, standing next to Hosokawa at a Tokyo hotel when he first publicly endorsed him, said the Feb. 9 election is going to be a battle between those who say Japan has no future without nuclear energy and others who say Japan needs a future without nuclear energy, and can prosper without it.
When in power, both men supported nuclear power. But they have turned against it, Koizumi after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, and Hosokawa several years before that.
Until the veteran duo came into the picture, the poll to choose a replacement for Naoki Inose, who resigned last month over a money scandal, was seen as routine, focused on the city's preparations to host the 2020 summer Olympics.
But now the election is developing into a proxy battle between Koizumi and Abe that could divide the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over nuclear energy policy.
Abe's government is strongly pro-nuclear, and hopes to restart as many reactors as possible. All 50 of Japan's commercial reactors are currently offline. But some within his party have voiced opposition to or reluctance about nuclear power, and more are believed to be in hiding.
His Cabinet has postponed approving a new energy policy, apparently to avoid the topic until after the Tokyo election, but the draft says nuclear energy should remain a fundamental part of Japan's energy mix.
Resource-poor Japan originally turned to nuclear power decades ago to promote industrialization and economic growth and later to keep from becoming so reliant on imported fossil fuels. Before the 2011 Fukushima crisis, nuclear power generated about a third of its electricity.
Since then, Japan's public has largely turned against nuclear power. The Asahi newspaper survey in November showed 60 percent of respondents supported Koizumi's "zero nuclear" policy, compared to 25 percent who opposed.