What do a onetime Arabic translator, an advocate of decentralization and a former Tehran correspondent have in common?
They’re all the leading candidates in Sunday’s Tokyo gubernatorial election.
Yuriko Koike, Hiroya Masuda and Shuntaro Torigoe are the front-runners in a race that features a record 21 candidates vying to be governor of the metropolis.
But heavy media coverage has largely skipped over the trio’s multifaceted backgrounds and has ignored many of the other 18 candidates entirely.
Perhaps best known is Yuriko Koike, 64, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who served as defense and environment minister.
Koike made headlines when she defied the custom of getting the blessing of the LDP’s Tokyo chapter before announcing her candidacy. As a result, she angered the chapter’s old guard and failed in her bid to gain the party’s backing.
But that may have given her a boost with Tokyo’s large number of unaffiliated swing voters. Polls suggest she is ahead by a close margin.
At 19, she ventured to Egypt to study Arabic, graduating from Cairo University. Fluent in Arabic, Koike worked as a translator before becoming a TV Tokyo news anchor.
With her TV exposure, it did not take long for political heavyweights in the Nagatacho district — the seat of power — to persuade her to run for the Diet. And in 1992, Koike won an Upper House seat on the ticket of the now-defunct Japan New Party (Nihon Shinto).
Switching to the Lower House the following year, she retained her seat through eight consecutive terms until automatically losing it when she filed to run for governor this month.
During her years as a lawmaker, she bolted several parties before settling on the LDP in 2002. It was then that her career as a politician began to blossom, and she served as environment minister between 2003 and 2006 under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
As environment minister, she initiated the Cool Biz campaign that encourages office workers to dress casually during the summer to reduce the need for air conditioners.
Koike also shattered a glass ceiling in 2007 when she became the country’s first female defense minister.
Because of her background, she had pushed for friendly ties with Libya, serving as chairwoman of Japan-Libya Friendship Association, during Moammar Gadhafi’s time in power.
Koike also stoked controversy when she told the daily Mainichi Shimbun in 2003 that Japan may need nuclear weapons, “depending on international circumstances.”
Observers say if it were not for Koike, the race might have been a cake walk for the LDP-backed Masuda.
But because she decided to run, the votes of the conservative LDP and junior coalition partner Komeito are likely to be split between the two, creating a tight race.
Despite his comparative lack of name recognition, Masuda has the most experience in local administration among the three contenders, spending 12 years as Iwate governor from 1995 to 2007.
He was known at that time as one of four reform-minded prefectural bosses, along with Mie Gov. Masayasu Kitagawa, Miyagi Gov. Shiro Asano and Kochi Gov. Daijiro Hashimoto.
After graduating from the prestigious University of Tokyo, Masuda joined what was at that time the Construction Ministry, before then-Shinshinto kingpin Ichiro Ozawa persuaded him to run for Iwate governor.
Masuda won and became the nation’s youngest ever governor, at the age of 43.
In 2007, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first stint as leader, Masuda was appointed internal affairs minister and developed a reputation as a technocrat pushing for decentralization.
Because of his background, Masuda has long been a vocal critic of overpopulation and the over-concentration of resources in Tokyo.
His best-selling book “Local Extinctions,” published in 2014, delivered a shock to the nation by predicting that nearly 896 municipalities in Japan could disappear by 2040 amid depopulation.
Masuda also served as an outside board member of Tokyo Electric Power Holding Co. from June 2014 but resigned the job on July 8 to focus on the Tokyo gubernatorial contest.
Masuda, who has recounted flying first class during his time as Iwate governor, has vowed to end such extravagancies, after Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe was ousted from office over a funds scandal. He says he will only travel business class.
He had backed granting local suffrage to non-Japanese residents with permanent status, a position that put him at odds with most of the LDP. But upon entering the Tokyo race, Masuda backtracked, saying circumstances in Iwate are different from Tokyo and that he would listen to voters in the metropolis before making any decision.
With both Koike and Masuda having abundant political experience, Torigoe may appear to be the odd one out.
But as a former journalist, Torigoe, 76, has been as vocal on political issues as his rivals, firmly opposing last year’s contentious security legislation while also blasting constitutional revision.
In fact, the ruling bloc’s sweeping victory in the July 10 Upper House election — which handed it a two-thirds supermajority in the chamber allowing steps toward constitutional revision — was why Torigoe entered the race, he said.
With the backing of four opposition parties, including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, Torigoe is the only major contender who stands explicitly opposed to Abe.
After graduating from Kyoto University, Torigoe began his career as a reporter at daily Mainichi Shimbun.
He worked as a Mainichi correspondent in Tehran in the 1980s, covering the bloody Iran-Iraq War.
Priding himself on his career as a reporter, Torigoe has vowed to use his professional skills to track down problems Tokyo faces and to tackle them head-on.
Torigoe is also a survivor of advanced bowel cancer, having undergone four operations.
During a news conference earlier this month to announce his candidacy, Torigoe said he is now in the best shape ever, thanks to a healthy diet and regular time at the gym.
Despite his late entry the race and seeming lack of preparation, polls initially showed a lead for Torigoe. He has since slipped into a firm third place, perhaps cemented last week when the weekly Shunkan Bunshun magazine alleged he had made inappropriate approaches to a young woman in the past. Torigoe filed a criminal complaint over the allegation.
Media coverage may be all about the big three, but the remaining 18 candidates, who have little chance of winning, have an assortment of quirky backgrounds and odd campaign pledges.
Former labor minister Toshio Yamaguchi, 75, is an ex-convict who was imprisoned in 2007 for his involvement in a loan scam in the 1990s, while he held office.
Donning a modest windbreaker at a news conference to announce his candidacy, Yamaguchi promised to slash wasteful spending on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Meanwhile, former journalist Takashi Uesugi, 48, is vowing to serve for Tokyoites without pay, living off his own personal savings. A former secretary to late LDP veteran lawmaker Kunio Hatoyama, Uesugi says residents deserve lower taxes.
Uesugi is the founder of the Free Press Association of Japan, which consists of journalists critical of Japan’s exclusive press-club system. The group has hosted news conferences open to all journalists.
But perhaps the most contentious candidate in the race is Makoto Sakurai, the former head of anti-Korean group Zaitokukai, famed for its rallies that critics say exploit Japan’s lack of hate-speech ordinances.
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