Fukushima chooses continuity in election

Fukushima chooses continuity in election
Rice is harvested in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture.

FUKUSHIMA, Japan - Masao Uchibori was able to win Sunday's gubernatorial election in Fukushima because voters wanted a stable leader who will steadily proceed with reconstruction from the damage caused by the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

A former deputy governor of the prefecture, the 50-year-old Uchibori won the election thanks to the backing of both the ruling and opposition parties. The outcome suggests that voters gave priority to steady reconstruction from the 2011 disaster.

The new governor's mission is to accelerate progress in reconstruction work.

"Efforts to help evacuees rebuild their livelihood and reconstruct areas from which residents have evacuated will lead to revitalization of the entire prefecture," Uchibori said at his campaign office in Fukushima on Sunday evening, after his victory was reported to be certain.

In a public opinion survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun in mid-October, 86 per cent of voters in the prefecture said restoration and reconstruction was the most important issue in the gubernatorial election. Multiple answers were allowed.

However, 86 per cent said that reconstruction work "has not progressed at all," or "has not sufficiently progressed." This mood apparently led a large number of voters to believe Uchibori would accelerate reconstruction work.

Continuity was key in the election. Seventy-two per cent of the survey's respondents praised the administrative work of outgoing Gov. Yuhei Sato, 66, who served in the post for eight years over two terms.

Sato concluded difficult negotiations with the central government over construction of a temporary storage facility for a huge volume of radioactive soil collected through decontamination work. Residents in the prefecture appreciated Sato's achievements, which paved the way for resolving the issue.

As the inheritor of Sato's policies, Uchibori won because many voters want the prefectural government to be a stable administration that will achieve progress in reconstruction work. Delays in reconstruction have been causing serious problems.

Kenichi Koori, a 59-year-old rice farmer in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, said he was shocked by the price that a local agricultural cooperative offered to pay when it took possession of his rice. "I won't be able to make a living," Koori thought when he heard the tentative figure in September.

He was offered ¥6,900 (S$81.63) per 60 kilograms for his Koshihikari brand rice harvest, which was ranked as the highest grade in quality. This was about 40 per cent lower than last year because the cooperative factored in consumers' reluctance to buy products from the prefecture due to anxieties over possible contamination.

Rice prices have been generally low nationwide due to abundant harvests and falling consumption this year, but in neighbouring Ibaraki Prefecture, ¥9,000 was offered for 60 kilograms of rice, about 20 per cent lower than last year.

Safety checks have been implemented on all packages of rice in Fukushima Prefecture, and only those that are confirmed to be safe are shipped out.

However, an official of a JA agricultural cooperative said: "More than three years have passed, but we're still suffering from unfounded fears. Even at the same prices as other prefectures, buyers don't choose our products. The tentative payments in Fukushima Prefecture are dropping at a greater rate than elsewhere, despite all possible efforts."

According to the prefectural government, more than 120,000 residents still live in evacuation sites inside and outside the prefecture. Of them, about 24,000 people evacuated to Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, and an increasing number of the evacuees have resettled in the city.

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