The Japanese government regulates electricity rates for individual homes, but TEPCO is essentially able to charge whatever it feels like to large-scale corporate users. Although technically, the market for large-scale electricity users was deregulated several years ago, practically speaking, most corporate customers such as our shopping center do not have any real alternatives to buying electricity from TEPCO. I was surprised, therefore, when TEPCO contacted us in January for a meeting to discuss its “request” for a 14.8 percent rate hike.
Two extremely polite but downtrodden-looking employees from a TEPCO branch office in Chiba visited my office in early February to explain their request. They handed us a one-page explanation signed by TEPCO’s president using the word “onegai” in the heading. According to the New Century Japanese-English Dictionary, the word “onegai” means a wish or request. I interpreted the president’s words, therefore, to mean that we were not obligated to accept the rate hike.
According to the Japanese media, TEPCO’s board is refusing to allow the Japanese government majority ownership of the company despite a huge injection of taxpayer funds.I explained to the TEPCO Chiba representatives that, as of that time, TEPCO shareholders had not made any sacrifices other than losing their dividends, which they should not be entitled to anyway since TEPCO is now losing money. TEPCO creditors had also not made any sacrifices. TEPCO employees have been forced to take salary cuts, natural under the circumstances, but as a Japanese taxpayer, I feel like TEPCO is ungrateful for the government bailout.
The letter from TEPCO’s president says that in order to maintain a stable supply of electricity, the company has been forced to import more fuel to replace the nuclear plants that were shut down following the accident in Fukushima. While I don’t dispute those facts, it is not clear why customers should have to bear responsibility for TEPCO’s own mistakes in design, planning and judgment, when shareholders have not given up any ownership or control in the company.Japanese electricity rates have always been extraordinarily high by international standards and TEPCO has traditionally justified these charges by claiming that it needed to make huge investments to guarantee a stable supply. Now that we have found these explanations to be false, can we ask for a refund on all of the excess charges that have been paid for decades?
I also told TEPCO’s representatives that I found their request for a rate hike especially galling as it occurred before they had ever apologized to us individually for all of the trouble that they caused – or made any offers of compensation for the losses suffered as a result of the electricity shortages last year. Our shopping center lost a huge amount of business as a result of shorter opening hours for several months as a result of a “request” from TEPCO to save electricity.
In a second meeting with TEPCO’s Chiba branch in late February to discuss the compensation issues that I raised in the first meeting, I was told that the “request” made to large electricity users last summer to cut demand by 15 percent was merely voluntary, so TEPCO had no obligation to offer compensation for business losses suffered.
If the request to save electricity last summer was merely voluntary, then TEPCO’s onegai now is certainly just as voluntary. So I intend to say “no”. I strongly encourage all readers to do the same.