One day after her resounding victory in the Tokyo gubernatorial race, Yuriko Koike was surprisingly calm, responding deftly to a deluge of questions from reporters with her telegenic smile.
“The result was much better than I thought,” a relaxed Koike told reporters at her office in Toshima Ward on Monday morning.
“I’ve fought this battle with no organizational backup and I’m moved to see just how each single vote could evolve into a big movement,” she said.
Koike, 64, became the first female governor of Tokyo on Sunday by winning a race that saw an impressive voter turnout of 59.73 percent — one of the highest in recent decades and about 14 points up from the previous gubernatorial election in 2014.
The former defense minister received 2.91 million votes in total, well outdistancing her two main rivals, the Liberal Democratic Party-endorsed Hiroya Masuda, who won 1.79 million votes, and the opposition-backed Shuntaro Torigoe, who got 1.34 million votes.
Despite her commanding victory, however, questions remain over how Koike will manage her thorny relationship with the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, which she suggested was a hotbed of corruption after declaring her candidacy in early July.
Koike’s purported commitment to promoting diversity in society may be somewhat undercut by her past ties with ultraconservative organizations such as Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference).
Experts by and large attribute Koike’s strong showing to a campaign strategy that successfully won over voters’ sympathy by portraying her as the underdog in a battle against Masuda and Torigoe, both of whom secured the backing of the top two political parties.
“Voters were drawn into the ‘Koike theater,’ ” said Shigeru Tamura, a professor of municipal studies at Niigata University.
Koike initially expressed her intention to run without consulting the Tokyo chapter of the LDP, an act of defiance that eventually cost her the ruling party’s endorsement.
After that, she consistently portrayed herself as an iconoclastic challenger to male-dominated establishment politics, aligning herself with women and children and vowing to “revolutionize” Tokyo.
Distancing herself from existing parties and the status quo gained the attention of the public, especially swing voters, Tamura said.
The image strategy Koike’s campaign used to such great effect was exemplified by the tactic of encouraging supporters to attend speeches dressed in her signature shade of green. As the campaign drew to a close, more and more people showed up bearing something green, with some even touting broccoli sprouts and cucumbers.
The technique served to make the increase in public support for Koike visual, said LDP lawmaker Masatu Wakasa, who has strenuously supported her every step of the way at the risk of antagonizing his party.
Both Tamura and Wakasa, who was speaking to reporters after Sunday’s election, said gaffes and missteps committed by the Masuda and Torigoe campaigns also impacted the outcome.
While making a speech supporting Masuda, outspoken former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara launched into a personal attack against Koike, calling her “thickly made-up,” which was followed immediately by a burst of laughter from Masuda himself.
The LDP’s Tokyo chapter also reportedly warned its members in writing that if they and their families did not support Masuda over Koike, they would face possible expulsion.
Such heavy-handedness was probably regarded by many voters as “an act against today’s morals,” Wakasa said.
Torigoe meanwhile struggled amid allegations that he sexually harassed a female college student 13 years ago.
Although Koike appears to have emerged from the race unscathed, all eyes are now on whether she will stick to her initial hostility toward the assembly, which she said in early July she would “dissolve” upon becoming governor.
Realizing that such a scenario is impossible under current law, however, Koike watered down her rhetoric against the assembly Monday, saying she will instead “seek its cooperation.”
“I think we can both agree that we need to prioritize the interests of Tokyo residents,” she said. “If we don’t cooperate, our policies will stagnate, which would eventually be detrimental to Tokyo residents.”
Yasushi Aoyama, a professor of metropolitan politics at Meiji University and a former vice Tokyo governor, said he believes Koike is well aware of how she should behave.
“To implement her policies, she will need to cooperate with the Tokyo assembly,” Aoyama said, adding that sour relations with the assembly would inevitably disrupt efforts to pass ordinances and budgets.
“What she said during the campaign is one thing. How she will actually conduct herself will be another thing,” he said.
Another possible Achilles’ heel is her past link to ultraconservative organizations, such as Nippon Kaigi, a connection that casts doubt on the seriousness of her pledges to shake up the traditional male-dominated mindset.
Tamotsu Sugano, author of the best-selling book “Nippon Kaigi no Kenkyu” (“Study of Japan Conference”), said during an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last month that the group is synonymous with misogynistic views that seek to suppress the rights of women and children.
On Monday, Koike, who throughout the campaign vowed to empower women in the workplace and ease Tokyo’s notorious day care center shortage, sought to play down her ties with the group, insisting she no longer has a close relationship with it.
“I’ve distanced myself from the group over the last few years,” only sending proxies to its gatherings, she said, underlining her assertions in a Sunday interview with the media that she has dissociated herself from the organization because it has grown more “edgy” over the years.
“But I still do agree with the group’s stance that cherishes Japan’s national interest, history and tradition,” she said.
Tamura of Niigata University said Koike’s hawkish ideology should not override what she promised during the campaign, lest she be seen as reneging on her pledges.
“That’s the all more reason, then, that the Tokyo assembly should function properly in order to monitor its new governor,” he said.
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