With Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s newly established Kibo no To (Party of Hope) expected to become a major force in the House of Representatives after the Oct. 22 general election, her prospective foreign and security policies have begun to attract attention.
Should Koike, thought to have an ambition to become Japan’s first female prime minister, come to influence policymaking at the national level, some experts suspect her diplomatic stance would have negative implications for the country’s ties with South Korea and China.
Koike, a former TV anchorwoman, has been regarded as a right-leaning conservative, given that she is supportive of amending the Constitution and making the nation’s defense system more muscular, analysts say.
At the national level, politicians are generally labeled conservative if they argue for revision by Japanese nationals of the supreme law — including the war-renouncing Article 9 — on the basis that it was imposed by occupying U.S. forces after World War II.
At the same time, such lawmakers also emphasize the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, especially when the security environment in the Asia-Pacific region has worsened amid North Korea’s attempt to develop nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles and China’s military buildup in the East and South China seas.
On Friday, Koike, who served as both defense and environment minister in the early 2000s when she was a Lower House member of the Liberal Democratic Party, announced her new party’s platform for the upcoming election.
The party wants to promote debate on amending Article 9 and said it supports the “proper application” of the security legislation pushed through the Diet last year by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, enabling expanded roles for the Self-Defense Forces.
The legislation, which took effect last year amid strong public protest, loosened the constraints imposed by Article 9 and allowed the SDF to defend the U.S. and other allies under an idea called collective self-defense.
Koike is “quite conservative,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. It is also clear she has right-of-center political views, given her close relations with the right-wing conservative lobby organization Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), Kingston said.
Koike once held a senior position with Nippon Kaigi, founded in 1997, and many of the 14 founding members of her party have been linked to the group, which is engaged in grass-roots campaigning for constitutional revisions and education to encourage patriotism.
If Koike’s party becomes a political force that is not far behind the LDP, it would be a welcome development for the United States, as conservative parties are typically supportive of the bilateral security alliance, reducing the burden on U.S. forces in the region.
“Washington is more comfortable with conservative parties due to their positions on security and the alliance,” Kingston said.
Skepticism, however, is growing about whether Koike’s party can build good relations with Beijing and Seoul, against a backdrop of her previous controversial remarks and actions on diplomatic and security issues.
Koike, who was elected governor in 2016, has opposed a proposal to give foreign residents of Japan the right to vote in local elections.
In 2003, she told a major daily that Japan should consider nuclear armament, depending on the international situation, even though the government has upheld since 1967 the three principles of not possessing, producing or allowing nuclear weapons in the country.
The JoongAng Ilbo, a major South Korean daily, said Koike is seen as more right-leaning than Abe, warning last month that further shift to the right would increase regional tensions.
Koike is also known for her connections with Taiwan. She made headlines in 2001 when she sent flowers to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui during his visit to Japan for a heart operation.
Immediately after she took up the post of defense minister in 2007 during Abe’s first stint in power, China voiced opposition to Koike’s links with Taiwan.
Beijing regards Taiwan as part of its territory, and has repeatedly threatened to use force if the self-ruled democratic island moves toward independence. Japan recognizes Beijing as the sole government.
“Regardless of who it may be, what kind of political party the person belongs to or what kind of political views the person holds, if one is given a government post, particularly a high-level post, that person should carry out duties from the viewpoint of the country’s interests,” China’s then Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
Koike’s remarks in recent debates and news conferences remain short of clarifying her security and diplomatic stance, and views are still divided over policies she would pursue in these areas.
In fact, some pundits say Koike is not a right-wing politician.
She is in favor of revising the Constitution in order to achieve a more “realistic” defense policy, said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo. “I do not think it makes her right-wing necessarily.”
An expert on the Middle East and graduate of the University of Cairo, Koike worked as an Arabic interpreter and a news broadcaster before entering politics.
She was first elected to the Upper House in 1992 with the now-defunct Japan New Party and won a seat in the Lower House the following year. After association with several other political parties, she joined the LDP in 2002.