Yukio Edano: New mission for Japan's Jack Bauer

Profile: Thrust into the limelight following the Fukushima disaster, Yukio Edano became a comforting presence on Japanese TV. As the one-year anniversary approaches he is still a prominent figure - but now a government minister.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Powered by automated translation

Last year, as Japan battled its worst domestic nuclear disaster, thousands of Twitter users across the nation willed one man to go to sleep. "#neroedano," they tapped over and over. "Go to sleep, Edano."

Yukio Edano was the chief spokesman in the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, sending it into triple meltdown and forcing Japan's leaders to consider evacuating Tokyo. Perhaps you saw his image on television: a pudgy man clad, like his government colleagues, in the light blue jumpsuit worn for such emergencies, delivering the latest updates on the failure of cooling ponds and the trickling of radiation into civilian quarters.

Unlike the other officials, Mr Edano - appearing hour after hour with the same centre hairline parting, jutting earlobes and unflattering blue overall - became a mascot who gave comfort to the worried citizens of Japan. The Telegraph newspaper's website, referring to the television series 24 in which one man saves the world in a day, christened him the Japanese Jack Bauer.

One year later, Mr Edano is more likely to be found in a business suit than a jumpsuit. But his current mission as economy minister is no less of an emergency.

Fukushima's one-year anniversary arrives on Sunday. The government has lost credibility after bungling the crisis response. Tokyo Electric Power, the utility that operated the plant, has required billions of dollars in aid from the government. All but two of Japan's reactors remain shut down in a nation that relied on atomic energy for up to 30 per cent of its power.

Today, Japan takes stock of its economy not in terms of growth but in how much less it has shrunk than expected. Last year it contracted by 0.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, the radiation contamination and clean-up in the Fukushima prefecture requires so much oversight that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, is setting up an office in Fukushima just for the purpose.

"Considerable effort has been made to restore normality at the plant and the Japanese authorities have declared that they have reached 'cold shutdown' status," Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, said at a top-level meeting in Vienna this week. "But there is still much to be done in the coming months and years."

Putting Japan's nuclear reactors to sleep raises the possibility of power outages and higher electricity prices, both further barriers to economic growth. The shutdowns have also increased Japan's reliance on fossil fuels, which must be imported from afar and whose price can wildly fluctuate based on external factors - the very thing that drove Japan to seek nuclear power in the 1970s.

Such matters have brought Asia's Jack Bauer to Abu Dhabi, where Japan holds multiple long-term oil concessions at offshore fields including Mubarraz and Bunduq. Japan has enjoyed a special relationship with the emirate since becoming the first foreign nation to buy its crude in 1962.

Between meetings with Abdulla Nasser Al Suwaidi, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and members of the emirate's powerful Supreme Petroleum Council, Mr Edano stopped in a hallway of the InterContinental hotel to speak with the Japanese press corps and a fleet of reporters based in the UAE. Bathed in bright television lights, the spokesman-turned-minister appeared at ease, parrying questions posed in English and Japanese alike.

"Our relationship we see as very positive," he said in October. "Oil is quite important to Japan. At the same time, so is technology and education. In many areas we'd like to deepen our relations."

The emirate's leaders had been receptive towards his request to renew a major offshore concession set to expire in 2018 that it shares with BP and Total, he said before being rushed away by his staff to prepare for his next stop, in Riyadh.

As the head of the ministry of economy, trade and industry (Meti) - the body overseeing commercial interests and energy policy that came into being in 2001 when Japan streamlined its government by combining ministries - Mr Edano must answer an array of fraught questions: should Japan restart its reactors? Should it nationalise its power industry? And where will it get energy in the meanwhile?

Mr Edano's rise to one of his nation's most difficult jobs began in Utsunomiya, 170km south of Fukushima.

To outsiders, Utsunomiya is famous for delicious fried dumplings known as gyoza. An average 1,244 people are packed into each square kilometre, drawn there by bastions of Japanese industry from Honda design centres to a Canon optics plant.

In 1964, Mr Edano's parents named their baby in honour of the late Yukio Ozaki, a politician who served in Japan's house of representatives for 63 years and was known for reciting patriotic poetry on poignant occasions, such as the death of a citizen. Devotees call him the father of the Japanese constitution.

Yukio Edano, however, would first make his mark as a singer, winning a nationwide contest with his junior school choir.

But after graduating from Utsunomiya's high school, he turned towards his namesake's career by enrolling in law school in Tohoku.

In 1988 he passed the bar. Five years later he became an official candidate of the New Japan Party, a one-year-old political group founded on combating corruption. The party died in 1994 - one year after his campaign - but by then he had already won his first election and joined the house of representatives.

The fate of the New Japan Party did not stop the young Mr Edano from helping to found another political outfit - the Democratic Party of Japan, which won its initial backing in labour unions and was eventually swept to power in 2009 on broad-based popular support.

Mr Edano climbed through various party posts, rising from the policy research council to secretary general. He was re-elected to the house of representatives and given the chairmanship of committees in oversight and government revitalisation as the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party.

But in recent years the coalition lost trust as it botched populist initiatives from childcare allowances to cheaper motorway tolls. The Fukushima disaster sent the approval ratings of Naoto Kan, the sitting prime minister, from 60 per cent down to 20 per cent. Then in September, six months after the tsunami, Yoshio Hachiro, the trade minister at the time, returned from a visit to the Fukushima power plant site and reportedly rubbed his jacket on a journalist, joking: "I will give you radiation".

The party ushered out Mr Hachiro and tapped Mr Edano, the oversight committee guy, the man in the blue jumpsuit who would not go to sleep: the Japanese Jack Bauer.

Mr Edano is keenly aware of the sensitivity of his position steering nuclear policy. Since Fukushima, 52 of Japan's 54 reactors have been shut down, and the last ones standing are scheduled to join them in May. It is uncertain if the shutdowns are to be temporary or permanent.

Yet Japan remains intent on keeping its nuclear industry alive by exporting technology abroad. It is competing in a tender to help build Jordan's first nuclear power plant and has signed a series of bilateral atomic cooperation deals allowing its to export technology and equipment to more nations.

Surrounded by Japanese press at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development headquarters in Paris in October, Mr Edano kept his right hand firmly crossed over his left. It was the end of a day of talks with the energy ministers of other net-importing nations, and he had worn a grey pinstripe suit with a maroon tie and pink pocket square.

Crinkles emerged around his eyes when a reporter from Abu Dhabi asked a question.

"First, I would like to thank you for following me all the way from the Middle East," he joked.

But he grew sober as he recalled the days that followed Fukushima, when press conferences were scheduled by the hour rather than timed with international summits.

"Nuclear policy does account for a major element in the work that I am involved in, so in that regard I don't think it was so different than the work that I was doing previously," he said.

"And as the chief cabinet secretary exactly at the time when the nuclear power station accident occurred, I was in a position to feel keenly the magnitude of the risk of a nuclear power station accident, and also feel very close to my heart the situation that those who were affected by the nuclear power accident was placed in," he said.

"To be involved with nuclear policy now as the Meti minister, I do feel a kind of fate in the responsibility that I now hold."

It was Mr Edano's last question for the day. He and his staff went outside and into the rain.

twitter: Follow our breaking business news and retweet to your followers. Follow us