March 2023 | Japan Media Watch
Why are the rightwing media demonizing solar power?
On January 20, Tokyo prosecutors raided the office of Tribay Capital, whose chief executive, Kiyoshi Miura, is the husband of well-known media pundit Lully Miura. The raid was in relation to a mega solar energy facility that Tribay was helping to set up in Hyogo Prefecture. Another company accused Tribay of fraud after it invested ¥1 billion in the facility four years ago and subsequently discovered that the project had stalled even before it transferred funds.
Though smaller online media had been covering the Tribay story, mainstream news outlets did not until the raids took place. Lully Miura is a frequent guest on current affairs talk shows and contributes essays and op-ed articles to Japanese and English language publications about political and social issues. Since the raid, she's been absent from television and the target of online vitriol, which claims that her advocacy for solar energy in recent years was in support of her husband's business activities. The day after the raids (prosecutors also visited the Miuras' home) Lully posted a message on the website of her own company, Yamaneko Research, stating that she had nothing to do with her husband's company, but that she would fully cooperate with the investigation.
Most of the criticism directed at Lully Miura has come from rightwing elements, which tend to identify solar energy as a leftwing cause. Lully is considered to lean conservative in her pronouncements, and is a favored critic by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party [LDP]. The cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed her to a government panel on energy policy, which is where she promoted solar power most visibly.
Lully's unexpected vilification by the right drew the attention of the web talk show No Hate TV, which usually covers hate speech topics. The February 1 episode, which discussed "hatred against solar power," was promoted using a still of Christopher Lee as the vampire Dracula raging against the sunlight.
The hosts claim that the reaction to the raids epitomizes a general trend among rightwingers, who resent solar power not only because liberals tend to like it, but due to the fact that Chinese entities are investing in solar power in Japan, and they hate China. Consequently, anyone who promotes solar becomes the target of rightwing enmity, including nominally conservative figureheads like Toru Hashimoto, who endorsed solar while he was mayor of Osaka; his party Ishin no Kai, which also has a solar plank in its political platform; and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who wants all new homes in Tokyo to install solar panels. Publications that traffic in rightwing conspiracy theories claim these politicians are taking money directly from China.
The development of the Chinese conspiracy rumor mill was explained last May by reporter Masaki Kubota in Diamond Online, in particular the criticism of Hashimoto and LDP lawmaker Taro Kono, another advocate of renewable energy. Journalist Hiroyuki Yamaguchi, a biographer of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, wrote an article for the right-leaning magazine Hanada Plus about Hashimoto's supposedly close relationship with China. When Hashimoto was Osaka mayor in 2012, he awarded a company called Shinwa Kogyo the contract to develop a solar facility on the manmade island of Sakishima in Osaka Bay. Shinwa subsequently established a joint venture with Shanghai Electric Power Co. Ltd., and they have been working on the project ever since. In his article, Yamaguchi accuses Hashimoto of not publicly revealing Shanghai's participation, saying that Shinwa won the contract through a “stealth bid,” since he believes Shanghai was already involved when the bidding process took place. China's participation in such an important infrastructure decision could not have escaped the notice of the mayor, wrote Yamaguchi, and, by the same token, Shanghai could not have become involved without the knowledge and support of the Chinese Communist Party.
Kubota dismisses Yamaguchi's reporting since he offers no real evidence for these assertions. Kubota points out that major media started covering the Chinese involvement in the Sakishima project in 2014. The reason Hashimoto didn't mention it is because he knew he would be criticized for countenancing Chinese interest in the project, but no media outlet at the time accused him of receiving a “stealth bid,” and given Hashimoto's notoriously contentious relationship with the press, had there actually been a stealth bid media outlets would have certainly uncovered and reported it.
In truth, it wasn't unusual in 2014 for large-scale solar projects to include Chinese investment. Due to the Japanese government's feed-in tariff (FIT) system to promote solar energy development, which started in 2012 in the wake of the Fukushima reactor meltdowns and guaranteed high prices for selling solar-generated electricity to utilities, many foreign companies were keen to invest in Japanese solar, since the price for solar-generated electricity was three times what it was in Europe and other countries. Chinese interests were the most prominent because China was becoming the world’s number one manufacturer of solar panels. As of May 2022, one Chinese company, Sky Solar, was involved in 68 solar farms throughout Japan. Japanese companies interested in solar power generation and local governments that want to set up solar facilities cannot really do anything without Chinese help, so Shanghai Electric Power's involvement in the Sakishima project was hardly surprising or scandalous.
The clamor surrounding Taro Kono materialized when he ran for the LDP presidency in 2021. Kono's family owns a manufacturing business called Nippon Tanshi (NT), which has joint ventures in China. Moreover, Kono's father, Yohei, had a close diplomatic relationship with China when he himself was a top official in the LDP. During the 2021 election campaign for LDP president, internet right wingers spread rumors that NT was making parts in China for solar panels being sold in Japan, and that Kono was not disclosing this conflict of interest in his campaign. Kubota says this is not true. NT only manufactures auto parts in China that are used mostly by Japanese car makers. They have nothing to do with solar panels. But since the rumors were concentrated during the brief election campaign, Kono did not have time to refute them, and they stuck. As soon as the election was over, the rumors stopped.
The reason Kono is a target of rightwingers is not just his advocacy of solar, but his reputation as a nuclear energy opponent. Though Kono has backed away from this stance in recent years, the right still doesn't trust him. In this regard, the FIT system was promoted by the now defunct Democratic Party of Japan when it was briefly the ruling party as a means of developing renewables in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but the LDP agreed to implement it when it regained power, even if its policy has always been to restart as many nuclear reactors as possible. Solar and other renewable energy sources were never meant to replace nuclear power, but, in any case, the FIT process under the LDP was poorly conceived and clumsily carried out, and as a result many people are blaming it, at least partly, for their high electricity bills.
As energy expert Tatsuya Iida explained during a recent discussion on the web talk show Videonews.com, the FIT program initially made Japan the top solar energy producer in the world, commanding 40% of the planet's solar energy production, but the rest of the world has since outstripped Japan in terms of development and Japan's share has dwindled to less than 2%. That's because the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) made the mistake of setting the guaranteed price very high in the beginning and then mandating that it would remain that high for 10 or 20 years, depending on the producer. What this means is that if a company registered to sell solar energy back when FIT started in 2012, it can continue to charge that high price for years after it starts selling electricity to utilities, regardless of when it starts production. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels and facilities in general has been dropping steadily, thus creating a “solar bubble”. Panels in Japan now cost 10% to 20% what they did 10 years ago, so companies just concentrate on volume, setting up mega solar farms and then receiving lots of money from utilities for their electricity.
The utilties, of course, don't absorb this cost. It is subsidized by the government, which charges consumers to pay for the subsidies. The charge is indicated on utility bills as a renewables surtax. According to the business magazine President, in 2021 the average household paid ¥1,300 a month for this surtax, which will continue to rise until 2030 to pay for the subsidies. Homes that have solar panels themselves may be able to make up at least partially for the surtax by selling their excess electricity, but those without solar panels can’t. President says that though the FIT system as designed by METI helps promote construction of a solar infrastructure, it also stifles innovation and competition. Moreover, only renewables gets a line item on the utility bill. This renewables surtax and, just recently, a fossil fuel surcharge get line items on the utility bill. The high cost of maintaining and restarting nuclear plants is hidden in other charges. The consumer only sees the solar surtax and not the actual cost of solar energy, which is now very low. As President puts it, this line item indication reveals the true attitude of the government: Renewables are too much trouble.
At the same time consumers sees this surtax on their bills, they also hear about companies buying up huge tracts of land and constructing solar farms, like the one Tribay was supposed to be building. Many of these companies are associated with the real estate industry, which is often tied to so-called anti-social elements such as organized crime. Chinese investment, though misunderstood due to the aforementioned media coverage, only exacerbates this negative image. In 2021, a landslide killed several people in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, and the media latched on to the intelligence that a realtor had bought land for a solar installation on the hill where the landslide took place. While there was no evidence that the deal had anything to do with the disaster, people made the connection.
The FIT system increased solar's share of Japan's energy production to 10% in a decade – the ostensible goal is to reach 22-24% percent by 2030 – but Iida says development has slowed greatly and some players have left the business because they didn't take advantage of the initial high FIT prices. In addition, there is the environmental damage caused by indiscriminate construction of mega solar farms, not to mention the government's renewed resolve to restart nuclear reactors as a means of achieving its carbon neutral goals. The general public's support for nuclear has gradually moved from the negative column to the positive due to the effect of expensive, air polluting fossil fuels on their utility bills, but as IIda points out, even if Japan restarts all the reactors that were shut down after Fukushima, it will cover less than a third of Japan's energy needs.
For all its nuclear boosterism, the government has not done anything meaningful in terms of safety countermeasures and waste disposal in the last 12 years. Reactor restarts will continue to be stymied by lawsuits and mistrusted by people who have to live next door to them. Renewable energy facilities can be quickly constructed at low cost, but due to a phenomenon known as “institutional inertia,” METI has, inadvertently or not, demonized solar power and neglected to create an environment where other renewable forms of energy, such as wind, biomass, and geothermal, can take root. That's because they still think of energy production as being the bailiwick of the regional monopolies, which are going to make as much money as possible no matter what the source of their electricity is. This means that Japan will likely have to continue relying on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.
Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for the Number 1 Shimbun.