Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, a media-savvy political veteran who has charmed her way through a male-dominated political world, has now played a wild card that threatens to reshape national politics.
The charismatic former television anchorwoman has launched a new party that offers an alternative to the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party and its leader Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in upcoming snap elections.
Displaying impeccable timing and a flair for political theater, she announced she would lead the new “Party of Hope” in a surprise news conference just hours before Abe himself declared snap polls — pulling the rug from under his feet.
And the telegenic 65-year-old also knows how to grab the media limelight — just minutes before her news conference, she took a photo op with a panda cub that was recently named at a Tokyo zoo.
Koike, who was elected Tokyo governor only a year ago, combines an intuitive understanding of the media, the political acumen in taking on good fights and a knack for sniffing out advancement opportunities, analysts say.
A trailblazer who became the first woman to lead in many prominent positions, such as defense minister and governor of the capital, Koike has played on her natural appeal and reformist zeal to win over both voters and some in the old-school political world.
The party’s first campaign video shows a woman presumed to be Koike in high heels and a snappy business suit barging her way past a bunch of stuffy old men.
Koike has complained that Japanese women face not a glass ceiling but an “iron plate” barring them from advancement.
“She is a person who clearly enjoys politics. She has a natural intuition,” said Tomoaki Iwai, professor of Japanese politics at Nihon University.
“She is quick to make decisions. She doesn’t dwell on things. She knows the media extremely well,” said Iwai, who has known Koike for a long time.
“Because she is intuitive and not a plotter, she comes off as a good sport,” he said.
Fluent in English and Arabic, Koike projects an internationalist image rarely seen in Japanese politics.
Born in 1952 in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, Koike attended the region’s Kwansei Gakuin University before transferring to the Cairo University of Egypt and graduating in 1976.
After a stint as a translator, she worked as a television broadcaster, interviewing Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
Harnessing her now nationwide fame, she first won an Upper House seat in 1992 before switching to the more-powerful Lower House the following year.
During her career, Koike has political affiliations but always stayed close to powerful leaders, such as former prime ministers Morihiro Hosokawa and Junichiro Koizumi as well as Ichiro Ozawa, a shrewd strategist who had wielded significant political influence.
She joined the LDP in 2002, and became environment minister in 2003 in the popular Koizumi administration.
From 2005, she began promoting “cool biz,” a drive to conserve energy with efforts to reduce air-conditioning, including urging businesspeople to take off jackets and ties during summer.
During Abe’s first short stint as a prime minister a decade ago, Koike was tapped as his special adviser on national defense before being appointed the first woman defense minister in 2007.
But she had lukewarm support in the LDP and her bid to become party chief faltered.
In 2016, she defied LDP leaders and won a landslide victory against the party’s candidate in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, portraying the long-governing party as being controlled by secretive, wasteful bosses.
She went on to batter the LDP again in the Tokyo assembly election in July, but she and Abe have carefully maintained cordial ties, as they have to work together to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.
Koike has already rallied several disillusioned lawmakers from other opposition parties to her cause but commentators say she may lack sufficient time to mount a serious national challenge to Abe.
With the 2020 Olympics fast approaching, Koike has vowed to stay on as governor of Tokyo, meaning she doesn’t intend to run for a seat in the Diet.
However, if her group were to win 20 to 30 seats in the Diet, it could tip the balance of power, said political analyst Iwai.
Critics say she lacks a clear message that differentiates her group from the tattered Democratic Party, the main opposition force.
“Her policies may be haphazard. But a sense of unity would come once she gets people elected,” he added.