A number of influential business executives politely declined the central government’s offer to take over one of the most despised companies in Japan that is facing an unprecedented mountain of problems.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda finally turned to lawyer Kazuhiko Shimokobe, who heads the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, on April 19, to become chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Shimokobe accepted the offer, but he is only expected to serve for about a year before handing over the reins to a more experienced business executive. The central government also plans to replace Toshio Nishizawa as TEPCO president with someone from within the troubled utility.
After the central government began considering a virtual nationalization of TEPCO, government officials late last year started thinking about a candidate to succeed Tsunehisa Katsumata as TEPCO chairman.
Sources said the names of nearly a dozen business executives were considered. The task of actually asking those individuals to take over the TEPCO chairman's post fell to Yoshito Sengoku, the acting chair of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's Policy Research Committee, because of his personal connections to the business world.
Even Sengoku, however, could not persuade any business executive to accept the offer.
One individual contacted by Senkogu was Hiroshi Okuda, a former chairman of Toyota Motor Corp. who had also been chairman of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) and is now governor of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.
Okuda, 79, turned down the offer after opposition from members of the Toyoda family, which founded the automaker.
At an April 2 news conference, Okuda spoke in general terms about what it would mean to become chairman of TEPCO.
"It would be extremely bad for (someone from) a company that sells products to the general public to become TEPCO chairman because there is the possibility of a sales boycott," Okuda said. "I feel that would apply to not only Toyota, but any company."
Fumio Sudo, the former president of JFE Holdings Inc., was asked on two occasions to become TEPCO chairman, but he refused both times.
Another individual approached was Uichiro Niwa, Japan's ambassador to China. Niwa once served as chairman of the trading company Itochu Corp.
Sengoku was part of a DPJ delegation led by Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi that visited China in late March. Sengoku met privately with Niwa to sound him out about taking the TEPCO post.
However, with a busy diplomatic calendar scheduled with this year marking the 40th anniversary of normalized relations between Japan and China, the conditions were not right for Niwa.
The job description was also not particularly attractive. The new TEPCO chairman has to deal with the huge costs involved in compensating victims of the accident last year at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and decommissioning the damaged reactors at the plant, which could take decades.
For the time being, the utility’s main task will likely entail repaying the huge loans extended by the government and banks to keep the company afloat. Any attempt to raise electric rates for households would likely be met by a huge storm of protest.
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