AOMORI, JAPAN -- The three candidates for governor in this rolling, snow-swept stretch of rural Japan all have common Japanese names: Kitamura, Yamazaki and Kanazawa. But the names that are invoked most often in the hard-fought campaign here have a distinctly foreign ring: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Saddam Hussein.
The burning issue facing voters in today's election is whether Aomori province should permit construction of a planned nuclear-waste facility to serve the growing number of nuclear-fueled power plants all over Japan.
As the candidates constantly point out, this local decision amounts to a crucial national choice: Should Japan continue its dependence on imported oil, risking the political whims of foreign leaders such as Saddam? Or should it hasten the switch to domestic nuclear facilities, risking the possibility of a Japanese version of the 1986 Soviet Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster or the 1979 accident at the American Three Mile Island facility?
Those who argue that Japan is fated to replay all the social and political dramas America has experienced would find evidence to support that thesis here in Aomori, a geographic name that means -- quite aptly, given the scenery -- "Green Forest." This election may mark the first big success for a burgeoning anti-nuclear movement that could undermine the national government's carefully prepared plans for Japan's energy future.
Since the Arab oil embargo of 1973, an event recorded in the high school history texts here as the "Oil Shock," Japan has dramatically cut its dependence on petroleum.
Because Japan has to import virtually every drop of oil it uses, the nation made it a national priority to use less. Japan consumes half as much oil as the United States for every dollar of gross national product, a central reason this resource-starved country has become an economic superpower.
That achievement stems partly from more efficient energy use, reflected in large and small ways throughout daily life here.
Streets and highways in wintry Aomori City, for example, are equipped with sprinklers that pour sea water onto the pavement whenever it snows. That uses much less energy than letting the snow accumulate and then rolling out gas-guzzling plows to remove it.
But Japan has also moved forcefully toward alternative forms of energy, particularly nuclear. The 38 nuclear generating plants dotting the four main islands produce 30 percent of Japan's electricity -- as opposed to the 18 percent produced by nuclear plants in the United States -- and the government has plans to increase the figure annually for decades to come.
The switch to nuclear energy has met little resistance -- until now. If the anti-nuclear side wins in today's election for governor of Aomori province, the push toward alternative energy sources could fall years behind schedule.
That is precisely the goal of Shigeru Kanazawa, the fiery populist candidate from the left-leaning Socialist Party. At age 54, Kanazawa is a youngster by the standards of Japanese politics, and he brings youthful fervor to his unbending anti-nuclear platform.
"The basic industries of our province -- agriculture, timber and fishing -- would have no future if we build this nuclear facility and something goes wrong," he shouted to farmers, who held up anti-nuclear banners mounted on sheets of woven rice straw. "But if we stop it here, we may spare the whole country from this danger."
Kanazawa sounds very much like American activists fighting proposed nuclear fuel facilities in Nevada, New Mexico and Washington state. "The last thing Aomori needs," he snorted, "is a pipeline bringing in atomic trash from the rest of the country."
At the opposite pole is the serious, patrician incumbent governor, Masaya Kitamura, 74. As the candidate of the dominant Liberal-Democratic Party (despite its name, the most conservative of Japan's major parties), Kitamura supports the politico-industrial establishment's view -- that the proposed nuclear fuel manufacturing and waste treatment plants here are essential to Japan's continued economic success on the world stage.
In the middle is 68-year-old legislator Tatsuo Yamazaki, a renegade former member of the ruling LDP who lost out to Kitamura for the gubernatorial nomination and is running as an independent. A wily veteran vote-counter, Yamazaki has called for a temporary freeze on construction of the high-level nuclear waste site.
Yamazaki says Aomori, with one of the weaker economies among Japan's 43 provinces, should use the nuclear site for leverage to get economic and political tribute from the rest of the country.
Number one on his list of pork-barrel projects that must be approved if the province accepts nuclear waste is extension of the famous bullet train all the way north to Aomori. Currently, the fastest train from Tokyo stops 200 miles south of here in Aomori's arch-rival city, Morioka. Aomorians are indignant that they have to switch to a slower local to finish the trip.
With three such distinct candidates, everybody recognizes that each man's experience, style and popularity may matter as much as the nuclear question. But that probably will not stop people from drawing strong conclusions no matter who wins.
"Here's an election way up north in Aomori, and the whole country is watching," said Takeo Sanada, of Japan Nuclear Fuel Service Co., the joint-venture company hoping to build the waste site. "Because, after all, it might tell us about the future of energy supplies in Japan."