ITAMI, Hyogo Pref. — While many Japanese politicians claim knowledge of or interest in Middle Eastern affairs, few if any can match the credentials of Lower House member Yuriko Koike of the Liberal Democratic Party.
The 51-year-old Koike attended Cairo University and has worked as an Arabic language interpreter. She travels regularly to the Middle East and is the president of the Japan-Arab Parliamentary League, making her one of the Japanese political world’s most well-informed experts on the region.
For Koike, the path to politics began in 1991, when she was working as a television newscaster dealing with a host of political and economic issues.
“Japan was on top at the time, at least economically. But then the first Gulf War began. I saw how Japan did nothing, and then the long economic downturn began,” Koike said. “It was easy to be a reporter on the outside criticizing, but I decided that I must do something to help.
“After all, when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you should not show up with a microphone but with water,” she said.
Koike was first elected to the Upper House in 1992 as a member of the fledgling Japan New Party, led by Morihiro Hosokawa, and became a Lower House member the following year.
After the fall of Hosokawa’s coalition Cabinet in 1994, Koike helped Hosokawa and Ichiro Ozawa found Shinshinto, a new party to challenge the LDP. Even after Shinshinto was dissolved, she continued to work with Ozawa, now the leader of the Liberal Party, to help make Japan, in his words, a normal country more engaged in international commitments.
Two areas where Koike has concentrated much of her attention are the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. She has called for a quick end to the war in Iraq, and warns the United States is mistaken if it thinks it can quickly bring democracy to that part of the world.
“America’s plan to democratize the Middle East is extremely naive,” she said. “Slow democratization is best for regional peace. But America’s plan is drastic. It could destabilize countries like Egypt so they end up like Algeria.”
If Koike is dovish on the war in Iraq, she is one of the fiercest hawks when it comes to a country much closer to Japan.
For the past few years, she has been one of the Diet’s most trenchant critics of the North Korean regime, supporting relatives of those who were abducted by Pyongyang and calling on the Japanese government to cut the flow of funds to North Korea by demanding that no public money be used to bail out failed “chogin,” Korean credit unions that are pro-Pyongyang.
“The root of the North Korea problem is money from Japan,” she said. “Japan, particularly the chogin, is North Korea’s purse, and the (pro-Pyongyang) group that opens and closes the purse is the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun).”
By the end of last year, the government agreed to provide the credit unions with nearly 1.4 trillion yen in assistance, a move Koike bitterly opposed.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said that because chogin are incorporated under Japanese law, they have to be treated like Japanese banks when it comes to public funding decisions.
“Not all of this 1.4 trillion yen has gone to North Korea, but I believe a lot has. And it is this and other money from Japan that have gone into building North Korean missiles,” Koike charged.
To stop the flow of money, Koike suggested that the United Nations pass a resolution proclaiming North Korea a terrorist organization, like al-Qaeda.
“This would help stop money going into North Korea via third countries like Singapore,” she said. “It would also lead to international cooperation in freezing the flow of funds to (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il’s regime.”
More immediately, though, is an effort in the Diet supported by Koike to rewrite a law that would require tough inspections of the North Korean ferry Man Gyong Bon, which runs between North Korea and Niigata.
For years there have been reports in the media and by ex-members of Chongryun that North Koreans in Japan use the ship to smuggle money and goods to North Korea, skirting customs and immigration officials in Niigata.
“The Man Gyong Bon brings in spies and drugs from North Korea and takes back Japanese computer technology that is probably used in North Korean missiles,” Koike said.
“Under current Japanese law, customs inspections can only be carried out on foreign-owned ships if the ship gives its approval. The law needs to be changed to allow customs officials to be able to board the ship if it is perceived as hostile,” she said.
While some politicians have also advocated that Koreans who live in Japan and visit North Korea be subject to strict immigration checks upon their return, Koike said such measures should only be considered after strict inspections of North Korean ships calling at the nation’s ports are carried out.
Koike was with Ozawa’s Liberal Party until December, working to change the Constitution to allow greater participation by Japan in military exercises abroad.
But she became frustrated by what she felt was too much party-related paperwork that had little to do with the issues, and joined the LDP, hoping, she said, to work with other like-minded politicians to push for change.
“She joined the LDP, but she remains independent and has refused to join any faction,” said Masaki Mantani, the head of Koike’s Itami office and a member of United Networks for Earth Environment, an environmental nonprofit organization.
“She is very much part of a new generation of LDP leaders who are far more knowledgeable about the outside world than many LDP elders,” he said.
Domestically, changes Koike and her colleagues are pursuing include a quicker cleanup of the debt-swamped banking system, and adequate funding for pensioners.
Koike welcomes increased foreign investment as a way to revive the economy. She thinks companies that cannot perform must not be propped up and instead be left to fail.
Still, she knows the changes she is proposing do not sit well with many in the LDP, especially those with vested interests in such firms that are propped up by the government, often at a huge cost.
“Basically, Japan is like the LDP — a place where nobody likes to make clear decisions,” she said. “So we have to change the LDP to change Japan.”