A year since becoming Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike is riding high.
In that time, she has won over voters by successfully portraying herself as an iconoclast battling the “black box” opacity that she says has long pervaded the decision-making process in Tokyo.
Her latest accomplishment is the sweeping victory that Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), the local political party Koike founded, achieved in the metropolitan assembly election last month.
Her party’s triumph, Koike said, underscored the pent-up frustration by a particular Tokyo demographic that she says has long been ignored by the old guard of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party: women.
“It’s a widely held notion that the LDP is a chauvinistic party with a propensity to treat women as a decoration,” Koike, 65, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times, noting that women account for a big portion of her party’s support base.
Tomin First’s victory helped raise the number of female members to 36, or 30 percent of the 127-member metropolitan assembly, up from 25 before the July election. Koike currently serves as the party’s special adviser.
“In a nutshell, it’s the dissatisfaction with the status quo that helped us win,” she said. “I think Tokyo residents wanted really badly to see a change in Tokyo politics.”
Breaking the status quo
This past year has witnessed Koike take her political career to a new level.
The media-savvy, populist governor’s seemingly unstoppable winning streak in local Tokyo elections has arguably threatened the standing of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the national level.
From reappraising Olympic venues to suspending the plan to relocate the world-famous Tsukiji fish market, she has constantly made headlines by challenging the status quo — a brand of showmanship that some call “Koike Theater.”
So far, her tactics seem to be working, with her influence being recognized outside Japan.
In April, Time magazine named Koike one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People of 2017, along with U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“As the first female governor of Tokyo … Koike is a trailblazer and an example for Japanese women — and women all around the world,” said Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was a member of the magazine’s selection jury.
“It’s been a very productive year,” the governor recalled in her interview with The Japan Times.
“The first year was all about sowing the seeds. In this second year, we will see the seeds I’ve planted begin to sprout. So we’re going to water and fertilize them, and I’ll make sure to do a good job of making them grow.”
Before becoming governor, Koike developed a colorful political career by holding multiple important portfolios as an LDP lawmaker.
The former Japanese-Arabic translator and TV anchorwoman first entered politics in 1992 when she won an Upper House seat for the now-defunct Japan New Party (Nihon Shinto).
In 1993, she switched to the Lower House and held her seat for eight consecutive terms. During this time she served as environment minister from 2003 to 2006 under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. She was also state minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs and in 2007 briefly took on the job of defense minister during Abe’s first stint as prime minister.
Koike compares her efforts to reform Tokyo with those of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose new centrist movement won a large majority in the French parliament.
“I believe Mr. Macron and myself are looking at how to open up new paths for political reforms, and this is something that many people are supportive of,” she said last Thursday in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
“Time is moving very fast now. The world is changing very rapidly and peoples’ lives are also changing very rapidly. However, the existing political parties are still debating based on how things always have been … and won’t come to any new conclusions.”
Looking back at her first year as governor, Koike believes her reforms brought about increased transparency in the metropolitan government and its decision-making process.
Soon after taking office, she caused an uproar by challenging the plan to move the Tsukiji fish market to the Toyosu district in Koto Ward.
She cited ballooning construction costs and safety concerns linked to noxious chemicals detected in the ground at the new site.
Critics meanwhile argued that delaying the relocation led to more costs by keeping the Toyosu site idle and compensating wholesalers and other parties that had invested in the relocation, which was initially set for last November.
After experts reviewed the plan, Koike announced in June that the market would be relocated to the Toyosu site after all but at the same time proposed that the old site be redeveloped after the 2020 Olympic Games.
She has punished metropolitan officials deemed responsible for the fiasco.
Koike also revised venue plans for the Olympics, relocating some of the events outside Tokyo, which should help reduce construction costs.
“These decisions were a major part of the reforms during my first year (as governor).” she said. “Both (plans) needed to be revised and I think I’ve succeeded.”
As another example of her success, Koike cited the passage of an ordinance to remove utility poles that are almost ubiquitous in Tokyo — a step she said was necessary to improve the capital’s disaster preparedness. Tokyo became the first prefecture to make such a move.
Changes in store
Her next big goal is to implement a comprehensive indoor smoking ban in Tokyo restaurants and other public places. Koike said she will take the step ahead of the central government, which failed to submit an anti-smoking bill during this year’s ordinary Diet session after knuckling under to resistance from LDP lawmakers.
“I’m planning to introduce an ordinance prohibiting smoking (in public places) at the earliest possible date,” she said, calling such a move a responsibility that Tokyo — as host of the 2020 Olympics — must bear.
“Under normal circumstances, such measures should be undertaken by the central government, but we can’t wait forever, so I want to introduce it first in Tokyo,” she said.
Also on her to-do list is restoring Tokyo’s position as Asia’s leading international financial capital. To this end, she is working to attract more businesses from overseas, possibly by setting up a prize to recognize international businesses.
Alarmed by a decline in the number of marriages among younger people, Koike said the metropolitan government plans to host matchmaking events.
“Tokyo has a number of wonderful islands. My plan is to sponsor various organizations that specialize in helping the young find partners by arranging boat trips to those islands,” she said.
But more importantly, the governor said she wants to implement a fundamental measure to remedy what she thinks is the biggest hurdle to young adult marriages — Japan’s corporate culture, which prizes overwork as a symbol of diligence.
“They simply don’t have the time to find a date because they’re so used to working late that they don’t care much about enjoying themselves or improving their skills,” she said. “It’s definitely the result of Japan’s obsession with working long hours.”
Future prime minister?
There is no denying that Koike’s reform-minded platform has struck a chord with Tokyo voters, presenting them with a powerful alternative to Abe’s LDP. Tomin First’s big win in the July 2 assembly election gave the LDP its biggest loss in history, sinking it to the third-largest party, at 22 seats, in the 127-seat assembly.
What’s worse for the LDP is that Tomin First, which commands an overwhelming 55 seats, is now aligned with 23-seat Komeito, the LDP’s ally at the national level, giving pro-Koike forces a comfortable majority in the Tokyo assembly.
In February, an independent backed by Koike drubbed the LDP-endorsed candidate in the mayoral election for Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, a slap in the face for LDP veteran Shigeru Uchida — the “don” of the metropolitan assembly and a representative from Chiyoda Ward.
Koike’s winning streak has fueled talk that she may seek to carve out a power base in national politics and lay the groundwork for a future comeback to the Diet.
Speculation is rife that lawmakers close to her, including her protege, Masaru Wakasa, and ex-Democratic Party conservative Akihisa Nagashima may soon form a national equivalent of Tomin First under her tutelage.
On Monday, Wakasa announced that he has established a political organization called Nippon First no Kai (Japan First) — a move that is likely to become a basis for Tomin First’s attempt to go national.
Nippon First, he said, will run a private political school named Kishojuku (which translates literally as School of Bright Light) with the aim of fielding candidates for a future national election.
Nippon First, according to Wakasa, will collaborate with Koike by inviting her as a lecturer to Kishojuku and soon debut under a different name as an official party.
The political parties subsidy law requires that a group have at least five lawmakers registered as members before it can become an officially recognized party eligible for government funding.
Whether such a pro-Koike party will become an ally or foe of Abe remains uncertain.
Chances are that Koike’s hawkish ideology — symbolized by her past ties with the right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) — may align her with the similarly right-leaning leader. In the past, she even argued that Japan may someday have to become a nuclear power.
But the advent of Koike’s new party would nonetheless be a threat to the LDP at a time when the ruling party is reeling from a recent string of ministerial blunders and scandals that have significantly eroded Abe’s support.
Some even speculate that the next Lower House poll is around the corner as Abe may feel compelled to call a snap election before Tomin First makes its debut in national politics.
Does Abe sense danger?
Although now would not be the most opportune moment to dissolve the Lower House, given the recent decline in the LDP’s popularity, the danger for Abe could be far worse if he waits and allows Tomin First to go national and offer voters an attractive alternative.
And if Tomin First wins as big as it did in the Tokyo election, Koike could become Japan’s first female prime minister. She has already shown that she has the ambition: She ran, unsuccessfully, for the LDP presidency in 2008.
But for now, there seems to be too many assumptions for this scenario to come true.
Koike, for her part, remains coy about her ambitions.
A day after her party’s victory in the Tokyo election, she told reporters she has no immediate plan to go national. But she also left room for speculation.
“I think a lot will happen in national politics going forward. But I believe we should all act based on the idea of ‘Kokumin (citizens) First,’ ” she said at the time.
Asked by The Japan Times to clarify what she meant by “Kokumin First,” Koike said the phrase has no significant meaning and that the media are simply “overreacting.”
Also at issue is how much longer she wants to remain Tokyo governor.
Her current term will expire on July 30, 2020 — right in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics, which will run until Aug. 9 that year. This will be followed by the Paralympics, which will end Sept. 6.
Some observers are betting that Koike is not willing to give up the honor of overseeing the entire sports extravaganza and therefore is most likely to pursue a second term. Such a scenario would seriously push back the prospect of her becoming prime minister.
So what are her long-term plans?
“I’m only thinking about tomorrow,” Koike said.
Key events in Koike’s life
1976 — Graduates from Cairo University and works as translator and news anchor
1992 — Wins an Upper House seat on the Japan New Party ticket
1993 — Switches to the Lower House
2002 — Joins the LDP
2003 — Becomes environment minister in Koizumi Cabinet
2004 — Appointed state minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs
2007 — Becomes Japan’s first female defense minister
2008 — Runs unsuccessfully for the LDP presidency
2010 — Serves as chair of the LDP General Council
2016 — Elected as the first female governor of Tokyo