National / Politics

In the shadow of Yuriko Koike's rise, some insiders see an isolated populist

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike appears to have carved out a position as the most popular politician in Japan — or at least in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district, the epicenter of national politics.

The Democratic Party, the largest opposition force, effectively disbanded last week to capitalize on Koike’s assumed popularity among voters, forcing many members to join her new party.

In the past two weeks, Koike and her Kibo no To (Party of Hope) have received massive coverage from media outlets (including The Japan Times), which have played up her prospective challenge for prime ministership and her role in potentially controlling the fates of hundreds of candidates in the Oct. 22 Lower House election.

But is she actually that popular?

Some who have worked closely with Koike appear to take a different view.

A recent survey by Tosei Shimpo, a semiweekly newspaper widely read by Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials, presents a starkly different image of the media-savvy former TV newscaster: An isolated leader who primarily cares about her public image over the substance of her policy measures, and who doesn’t trust anyone but a small circle of favored outside advisers.

In July, Tosei Shimpo conducted a poll asking 800 metro government officials to grade Koike’s first-year performance. The result was rather surprising. On a 100-point scale, her average score was only 46.6, far lower than the assessments of her predecessors Yoichi Masuzoe (63.6 points) and Shintaro Ishihara (71.1 points).

About 57.1 percent of 245 respondents who gave valid answers said they would not give her a passing grade as a governor.

“She just treats metropolitan government affairs as capital for her political struggle. She only tackles issues that are likely to boost her popularity with offhand ideas,” Tosei Shimpo quoted one respondent as writing.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom among political observers is that Koike is a flexible populist who is not terribly concerned with the substance of policy measures. The same probably applies for Kibo no To, they say.

“That’s her biggest strength and weakness at the same time,” said Yasushi Aoyama, former Tokyo vice governor and now a professor of public policy at Meiji University.

While policy positions are usually formed to fit a wider agenda, Koike often makes proposals for the sake of power games, Aoyama said.

Many respondents in the Tosei Shimpo poll pointed to Koike’s pledge to review the planned relocation of the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. After months of controversy and political maneuvering, the Tsukiji project remained stuck in the mud.

Just before the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July, Koike shelved the issue by pledging to use both the Tsukiji site and its planned alternative in the Toyosu area, with the current site set to be redeveloped in around five years. But Koike’s plan offered little in the way of details, failing to disclose how much it would cost to use both sites.

Elsewhere, in a bid to cut costs for the 2020 Olympic Games, Koike argued for the use of alternative facilities far beyond Tokyo’s borders. But again, after weeks of controversy and political wrangling, she had no choice but to withdraw the proposal, admitting that it was not financially viable.

“Voters support her not because of her policy achievements … but because of her character as a politician,” Aoyama said.

“She harshly criticizes other politicians, putting those in power or with authority in the crosshairs. So she looks very attractive” to voters, he added.

Aoyama believes Koike is a gifted political leader who has successfully drawn the attention of a wide swath of Tokyo residents, convincing them to accept metro government decisions on several key issues.

The built-up frustration among government officials in and of itself is not a major problem, Aoyama said, because the governor is supposed to serve residents, not his or her staff. But Koike’s list of accomplishments in her first year have fallen short of what was promised, he said.

“She is now entering her second year. Unless she starts tackling a midterm to long-term agenda now, her four-year term will just end without any major achievements,” Aoyama said.

But some observers doubt that Koike is actually interested in serving out her full term. Analysts see her ultimate goal as a return to the Diet and becoming the nation’s first female prime minister.

Apparently motivated by that ambition, Koike last week launched Kibo no To, a national party that immediately absorbed more than 100 DP members for the Oct. 22 election.

The party set forth few concrete policy pledges when Koike launched it on Sept. 25, with very little distinguishing its views from those advocated by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Still, DP members rushed to join because they were impressed with the stunning victory of Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), a regional party then led by Koike, in the July assembly election. Tomin First, which was only officially launched earlier this year, ousted Abe’s LDP as the top party in the metro assembly by winning 55 of the body’s 127 seats. The LDP won 23 and the DP only 5.

But Shiro Tasaki, a special political commentator for Jiji Press, said in a TV program on Wednesday that he is concerned about the future of Kibo no To.

“After all, Tomin First is a private party for Koike. I’m concerned Kibo no To could become the same” after the Oct. 22 election, he said.

Koike has appeared to maintain what some describe as a dictatorial decision-making style at Kibo no To, a similar complaint heard about her style as governor.

So far, Kibo no To has not named anyone to traditional party posts of secretary-general or policy affairs chief. This means Koike is often the sole decision-maker on key issues, even as the party plans to field more than 190 candidates in the upcoming election.

Meanwhile, Koike’s management style is already sparking mutiny among the rank-and-file of Tomin First. On Thursday, two founding members of the Tokyo-based local party — Shun Otokita and Reiko Ueda, both members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly — announced their departure from the party, citing frustrations over the closed nature of top management.

One example of the complaints about management include the abrupt change of the party president from Kazusa Noda to Chiharu Araki, both aides close to Koike, in September. The shake-up was reportedly decided by three top officials, including Koike, without consulting other party members.

The rank-and-file members first learned of this decision by media reports and then by a notification email sent from the party executives, according to Otokita.

“We have no idea who decided what and where,” Otokita told a news conference Thursday to announce his departure from Tomin First.

A handful of top executives of the party, all aides to Koike, have made key decisions behind the scene and those processes have been kept as ” a black box,” Otokita said.

Otokita said that Kibo no To asked him to resign as an assembly member and run for a Lower House seat in the Oct. 22 election. But he turned down the request, citing his distrust in Koike’s management style.

As opposition forces continue their wrangling, the latest media polls suggest that Koike’s Kibo no To may not be as popular as many erstwhile DP politicians assumed.

A Kyodo News poll conducted on Saturday and Sunday showed that 24.1 percent of 1,219 respondents said they will vote for the LDP in the proportional representation segment, while Kibo no To is lagging far behind at 14.8 percent.

The undecided voters make up 42.8 percent of the survey, and will likely cast the key votes on Oct. 22.

“Koike is very skillful at honing in on public sentiment and making appeals to voters,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare. “But people have begun to suspect that she is just in it for herself.”

He added: “Populism can quickly lose its steam. People could be fed up with Koike’s approach very soon.”

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