Editor’s Note: Japan is struggling to define its future energy policy. The island nation is at a crossroads. Political sentiment following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami is moving it away from its once heralded nuclear power program. Like Hawaii, efforts to boost renewable energy are in high gear. Civil Beat’s Joe Rubin is in the country on an international journalism fellowship to learn how Hawaii could benefit from Japan’s intensive program to harness renewable energy.

YAMAGUCHI — I’m in the small city of Yamaguchi about five hours by train from Tokyo. It’s a beautiful area but it’s winter here so it doesn’t feel anything like Hawaii. Terrain wise, it reminds me a little of Asheville, North Carolina, with a splash of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts (my home state).

I took a walk from the city center up into the surrounding hills and I had one of those knock-yourself-in-the-head moments when you look up from the story that you’re doing and say “Wow” as you realize you’re somewhere really different and amazing.

The homes were so Dwell magazine, except this is what all those upscale folks in Kahala or Mill Valley are emulating. I was especially impressed with the small farm plots that dotted the hillside of an urban area. In the late afternoon sun, folks were out tending winter vegetables. I was walking briskly and wearing my nerdy NPR headphones listening to interviews I recorded earlier. I got some very friendly, amused and a bit confused looks as I kept climbing higher and higher. 

The tape I gathered today was really interesting. I spent the day with the political candidate, Tetsunari Iida, Japan’s leading advocate for renewable energy and an anti-nuclear voice, as he campaigned in Yamaguchi prefecture. Just a couple of weeks ago Iida co-founded a brand new party called the Japan Future Party. And given how new it is and that no party is polling more than 20 percent, it is actually doing pretty well, about 5 percent. Iida himself is in a tough battle for a seat in parliament against a powerful former government minister from the Liberal Democratic Party.

I spoke to several renewable energy experts in the U.S about Iida who said he had been at this for years. So I expected a much older person. But as he bounded out of a van and started bowing to voters, I realized my expectations were off.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, campaigning is a funny thing in Japan. There is a lot of theater involved. Iida has a bunch of young volunteers who ran through a train station and downtown streets lining up voters who would agree to meet the candidate. I try to stay in OK shape with my daily runs, but I had a hard time keeping up with the pace. Iida was wearing a green sash with his party’s emblem on it. He was sincere and earnest with voters. Even people who seemed excited to meet the candidate generally kept their eyes downcast.

Afterward we sat down in a Chinese restaurant and talked about the campaign and his vision for Japan.

He started speaking in Japanese and communicated through my interpreter. But he broke into English when the talk turned to growth of the renewable energy sector. “Explosive,” he said. “Two gigawatts of power has gone on line in three months time, the equivalent of two nuclear plants.”

Iida is not just a proponent of or vested observer of what he says is a green revolution in Japan. He wrote the proposal for Japan’s feed-in-tariff law based on studies he conducted in Germany and Sweden. It almost passed back in 2000. Through ISEP, the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies where he is the executive director, Iida has been pushing for its passage ever since and the new policy was finally enacted in August.

You can see its impact as you whiz through towns on bullets trains and pick up the gleam of solar panels. Like in Hawaii, the combination of what amounts to a financial subsidy and cheaper solar panels is having a dramatic impact.

It’s important to keep this in perspective. We’re still only talking about roughly 2 percent of all power that is generated by renewable energy sources in Japan. The rest comes from imported oil, gas and coal. That is why Japan’s energy prices are the highest of any industrialized nation, partly why the country has slipped into recession and why nuclear energy remains the elephant in the room.

Iida was astonishingly frank about what will happen when, as expected, the Liberal Democratic Party comes into power. He believes the LDP is under the influence of the powerful Japanese electric companies which he calls the “nuclear mafia.” He used that phrase — “nuclear mafia” — several times during our conversation. I couldn’t help but think about Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese film director who was a master at portraying both gangsters and dark overtones in Japanese politics.

Having spent the last couple of years covering the U.S nuclear industry, what’s amazing to me is how nothing has changed in the U.S since Fukushima. The differences between the two countries couldn’t be more pronounced. In Japan 50 out of 52 reactors are off line. In the U.S all 104 aging reactors are humming. The chairman of the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Agency, Gregory Jaczco, who had been championing safety reforms, was pushed out by more industry friendly NRC commissioners.

Now, you just get the feeling that Japan is shifting back to nuclear energy. But if people like Iida have a say, it will be more like a minor correction than any kind of throwback to the way things were before Fukushima.