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Why Yuriko Koike is the new face of brand Japan

In Tokyo's governor, people see a viable alternative to the LDP's stale and scandal-plagued status quo

by

Special To The Japan Times

There’s a famous party scene in “All About Eve” where Bette Davis’ character Margo Channing, a highly regarded but aging actress whose career is on a downturn, expresses alarm at the rise of a rival ingenue Eve Harrington, who has caught the attention of her director boyfriend. At the end of her tether, Margo ascends the stairs and declares, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” As a forewarning to Margo’s quip, one partygoer declares, “The general atmosphere is very Macbethish, what has or is about to happen?”

We must be asking ourselves the same. Dust has settled on Abenomics. The Trump-Abe golf diplomacy in Mar-a-Lago? So long ago. The presence of the Liberal Democratic Party has become like that uncle who refuses to leave when you’ve said the party is over.

The LDP behemoth just got its clocks cleaned by a former member-turned-new party maverick who understands that the winds of change are blowing decisively in the direction of reform and transparency.

How did her upstart Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) win so overwhelmingly in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election?

It’s all about Koike.

Unlike Eve, the Tokyo governor is no political ingenue. She successfully mixes political courage with a direct communication style honed from so many years as an award-winning broadcaster at ease in front of the camera. She is more skilled in public and media relations than the second-term prime minister, who has used integrated marketing techniques to propel his often unpopular policy agendas.

Her lean green party machine played on the people’s wish to see some change from the status quo that acts as a political straightjacket for too many critical issues, from security to privacy to the runaway costs of the 2020 Olympics.

The public lost its patience with Japan’s scandal-mired party and took its chances with a formidable and fearless woman who oversaw the election of 49 out of 50 candidates. It mattered not much that many winners in the July 2 election are political first-timers. It mattered more that they weren’t the LDP.

It may take weeks and months to figure out the national implications of this local debacle for the LDP. Komeito, part of the LDP national coalition government, broke ranks to join Tomin First in the assembly election. Scorecard: LDP 23 seats, Japanese Communist Party 19 seats and the Democratic Party five. That’s right. The LDP has just four seats more than the Communists. And women’s political representation? Let’s just say that patriarchy took a beating with a historic 36 women elected.

Koike’s charm is her better understanding of respect for the public. “Citizens first” isn’t just a slogan. It’s a recognition that for far too long, people in Japan have not been dialed in. They’ve been disconnected and taken for granted. For decades during Japan’s boom years, the public quite logically tuned out of politics, the sport for elites, allowing the dominant LDP to run slipshod over the people’s will. No more.

Even though just under 52 percent voted, those who did seem to have awakened to a realization that Japan does not need a one-party state at the local or national level. That said, the LDP will survive. It is just too big and too well financed to fail. Many opposition research experts will be on the ready to uncover any scandals attached to the newbie firsters we now know as “Koike’s children.”

Nevertheless, given this political shake, rattle and roll, we could be witnessing Japan’s future first female prime minister. She is not easily cowed by intimidation tactics of her opponents, and now she has a circle of supporters among voters and new assembly members to buttress her policy agenda. She also adheres to a powerful principle of persuasion: consistency.

In her 2008 run for the presidency of the LDP, she said: “In order to break through the deadlock facing Japanese society, I believe the country might as well have a female candidate. Hillary used the word ‘glass ceiling’ but in Japan, it isn’t glass, it’s an iron plate. I’m not Mrs. Thatcher, but what is needed is a strategy that advances a cause with conviction, clear policies and sympathy with the people.”

She didn’t just advance her cause with conviction. She broke glass and metal.

Koike will likely expand her party nationally. She is the new brand face of Japan, through at least the 2020 Olympics, overseeing a government with an annual budget of ¥13 trillion. She will oversee a Tokyo that represents roughly 20 percent of Japanese GDP. If she can fully engage the public and convince voters that her transparency and reform principles are genuine and lasting, look for this former minister of the environment and minister of defense to have staying power.

Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. She resides in Tokyo.