Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s yet unannounced bid for a second term was dealt a potentially fatal blow by the postponement of the 2020 Games. Or so it seemed, until the novel coronavirus presented the incumbent with a de facto re-election platform.
Nobody wishes for a global health crisis, but the pandemic handed Koike an unmistakable chance to demonstrate her political prowess on the world stage leading up to the gubernatorial election on July 5.
The incumbent has a clear advantage but, beyond the results, the election will provide an evaluation of the governor’s response to the outbreak through the eyes of her constituents. The election is expected to provide a true measure of how much voters trust Koike to continue her fight against the coronavirus, carry out the Olympic and Paralympic Games and lead Tokyo through the rest of this tumultuous chapter in the capital’s long history.
Not only has Tokyo managed to prevent a devastating outbreak, Koike has shown herself to be a strong communicator and has always managed to create and maintain the appearance of someone who can get things done under heavy pressure from the central government, said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Public Health at King’s College London.
“All of which favor her in the next election,” he said.
Some experts praised Koike for responding to the unpredictable crisis with an adaptability not often seen among Japanese politicians, while others criticized her reliance on the central government to put forward virus countermeasures instead of taking the initiative herself.
She showed a modicum of moxie in late March when she became the first major politician in Japan to mention the possibility of a citywide lockdown. At the time, Tokyo had just begun to record new cases of infections in the double digits.
But Koike’s charisma quickly dissipated less than two weeks later when Abe declared a state of emergency and she insisted that virus countermeasures and business closure requests were strictly voluntary. She even told reporters, repeatedly, that Tokyo “was not under a lockdown.”
Leading up to Abe’s declaration of a state of emergency in seven prefectures on April 7, friction emerged between him and Koike over the scope and timing with which municipal leaders should issue voluntary business closure requests.
Koike wanted to initiate them immediately, while Abe thought it would be best to wait two weeks to see if the provision of financial stimulus to small and midsize businesses could be avoided.
In the end, Koike went ahead and issued comprehensive business closure requests that were followed by a series of supplementary budgets that provided more financial support than any other municipality in the nation.
Self-determining municipalities in Japan often draw praise from the public and ire from the central government. That, as well as the stratified nature of the country’s political system, has led to friction and dissonance between its municipal and national leaders.
Hokkaido declared a state of emergency in late February, more than a month and a half before Abe did so for the whole country in mid-April. And in early May, when the central government had yet to lay out how and when cities should peel back virus countermeasures, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura put forward his own plan to reopen society.
For the most part, Koike has marched in lockstep with national leadership, so much so that at times she has seemed bound by its often sluggish response or tone deaf messaging for fear of overextending herself or being thrust into the limelight.
Municipal leaders in Japan can’t punish or impose fines upon those who violate social distancing measures or business closure requests. Hence the voluntary nature of such countermeasures has led many to criticize the country’s response as toothless or ineffective.
And yet, the toll of the pandemic hasn’t struck Japan as severely as in other parts of the world.
It remains a mystery why the country was spared the deadly coronavirus outbreak ongoing in other parts of the world, and Tokyo has so far managed to survive with relatively low casualties. In the same vein, it’s difficult to know how or why Tokyo avoided disaster, and how much of the current situation in the capital can be attributed to countermeasures spearheaded by Koike.
It seems time was both her best friend and her worst enemy.
“It’s a matter of timing and she was lucky,” Shibuya said.
Less than two weeks have passed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted in all remaining prefectures the state of emergency he declared in early April. Tokyo, which has recorded more than 5,000 cases and nearly 300 deaths — the highest among all Japanese prefectures — has already begun to reopen society.
On Monday, the capital entered phase two of its three-part plan to peel back coronavirus countermeasures, lift voluntary business closure requests and attempt to reboot the economy, all the while preventing a second wave of the novel coronavirus.
Experts say Tokyo’s coronavirus “road map” was effective in that it laid out in simple terms how the city will incrementally reopen urban centers and local businesses, but that the plan itself is too shortsighted and needs to be carried out over a longer period of time. Furthermore, they say, Tokyo could have prepared sooner for the contagion by bolstering its health care system and amassing testing sites.
“When action needed to be taken, Koike relied far too much on the central government for help,” said Yasushi Aoyama, a professor of political science at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance who served as Tokyo’s vice governor under Gov. Shintaro Ishihara between 1999 and 2003.
Koike has yet to announce her bid for re-election, but media reports speculate that she will do so in the near future, possibly even before June 10 — the last day of the current session of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.
While there are other candidates drawing attention, Koike is the obvious frontrunner.
Nearly 70 percent of eligible voters in Tokyo support the incumbent, according to a survey published last week by JX Press Corp., up about 20 percentage points from March, while about 21 percent said they don’t support her and 9 percent were unsure.
In the same survey, 76 percent of respondents positively rated Koike’s overall response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The incumbent, who spent time in the national Diet and the Cabinet as defense minister and later as environment minister, is a seasoned politician who spent decades on a path to becoming the household name she is today.
Her advantage is undeniable. But no matter who wins the election in July, Aoyama said, containing the coronavirus and successfully hosting the Tokyo Games will be their main, if not only, priority during their time in office.
“They might not have time for anything else.”
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.