Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop
Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop

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 Inc., 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 to build 10 solar farms.

Short-Timer

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 U.S. 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-emphasizes atomic energy. Before the Fukushima disaster, the industry provided about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity. The plan was for that to rise to 53 percent by 2030.

Human Factor

The earthquake changed all that. The science of nuclear power makes perfect sense on paper. It emits little pollution or greenhouse gases and doesn’t rely on dirty and expensive imported fossil fuel. Yet something that didn’t change between Ukraine in 1986 and Japan in 2011 is the risk of design flaws, shoddy construction and poor training of reactor personnel. In other words, the human factor.

Fukushima’s back-up generators that might have averted the disaster were located in a basement and swamped by the waves. The monumental foolishness of that is summed up by Ken Brockman, a former director of nuclear installation safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna: “This in the country that invented the word tsunami.”

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 economy has enough problems. Yet Japan needs an explosion of fresh ideas, innovation and investment to become less reliant on reactors. Unless engineers can build them out of rubber, elevate them on huge shock absorbers and address every potential risk -- including terrorism -- this should be a priority for any leader who succeeds Kan.

Homer in Charge?

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.

Role Model

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.

It’s a good start toward getting Homer Simpson’s hands off the controls -- and a rare sign of hope in a nation that hasn’t had a lot to cheer about.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: William Pesek in Tokyo at wpesek@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net