Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has spent four eventful years at the helm of the capital, and now she’s seeking four more in the gubernatorial election on July 5.
From the costly relocation of a famous wholesale market and multiple attempts to forge a new political party, to the historic postponement of the 2020 Games and an unnerving initial brush with the coronavirus pandemic, her first term in office was a test of her diplomatic skills and political leadership.
Each challenge revealed a new face of Koike’s political persona, and they will also serve as benchmarks against which voters examine what the incumbent has or hasn’t achieved in the past four years.
Experts, however, say she has little to show from her current tenure.
“Koike has always been dedicated to her duties as governor, but we’re not seeing the same sharpness we saw when she burst into the election in 2016,” said Yasushi Aoyama, a professor of political science at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance who served as Tokyo’s vice governor from 1999 to 2003.
“To be honest, we haven’t seen it at all over the past four years.”
Upon assuming the governorship in 2016, Koike inherited the monumental task of relocating Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market from Chuo Ward to the site of a former gas plant 2 kilometers south, after the original site began to show its age.
Koike promised that, for the plan to be successful, a sustainable future had to be ensured for both local businesses surrounding the original market and wholesale fisheries looking to start afresh at the new site.
However, the relocation originally scheduled for November 2016 was put on hold after unsafe levels of carcinogens were discovered in the soil at the new site. News also emerged that pollution control measures that were supposed to have been taken a decade prior were never carried out.
That, along with her tactical decision to divert criticism by inviting Shintaro Ishihara — who was governor when Tokyo decided to purchase the land on which the new market would be built — to answer for the contamination issues at the new site in front of the metropolitan assembly, helped Koike draw support from consumers, wholesale merchants and local businesses.
But apprehension surrounded the new site due to the prospect of building a wholesale seafood market on polluted land. Consequently, many of her supporters felt blindsided when Koike announced the relocation plan would move forward in June 2017.
Relocating the 83-year-old market cost about ¥600 billion.
Countless businesses in the outer market near the old site have closed for good since the move was completed in Oct. 2018, and frequent accidents involving heavy machinery and poor traffic access — not to mention declining demand for wholesale market seafood — are just a few of the issues that continue to plague the new market.
Kibo no To, Tomin First no Kai
Koike’s political ambitions have always been undecipherable.
Defying the LDP to run for governor and creating two political parties of her own — one of which was arguably successful and the other not so much — hints at possible intentions to seek an even higher office than the capital’s governorship, namely prime minister of Japan.
“Hosting the 2020 Games to bolster her image and cement her political legacy is surely a priority, but if the LDP were to disband or weaken, Koike trying to snatch the prime minister’s seat isn’t out of the question,” said Misako Iwamoto, a humanities professor at Mie University and an expert in gender and politics.
In Jan. 2017, Koike formed the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) leading up to an election for the metropolitan assembly in 2017. She began laying the groundwork for the local party while she was still a member of the LDP.
Less than five months later, Koike resigned from the LDP and assumed leadership of her new party, which would go on to secure a dominant majority in the city’s assembly.
Tomin First currently holds 50 of the metropolitan assembly’s 123 seats, and also enjoys the support of Komeito, which holds 23 seats.
Later that same year, however, Koike founded another national party just hours before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared an early general election. Kibo no To (Party of Hope) was a conservative political faction through which Koike tried to poach members of the Democratic Party, then the largest opposition party in the Diet.
But the party was doomed from the start and began to bleed members and supporters as soon as it was formed. After a poor performance in the general election, she resigned as the party’s leader in November 2017.
Koike’s abandonment of her own failing party can be seen as validation of the criticism that she’s a populist who prioritizes the pursuit of power over policy.
“It’s impossible to know what Koike wants to achieve, in part, because she has never put into concrete terms her own vision for the future of Tokyo,” Iwamoto said.
The largest — or perhaps the most expensive — responsibility Koike assumed upon becoming governor was the organization and execution of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In 2013, when Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Games, organizers estimated the total cost would be around ¥734 billion. When she ran for governor in 2016, Koike promised she would do everything she could to make sure that figure didn’t go up and taxpayers wouldn’t have to shoulder any additional burden.
Things obviously didn’t go according to plan.
In December 2019, the Tokyo Organising Committee announced the games would cost up to ¥1.35 trillion.
Koike tried to cut expenses by hosting certain sporting events — volleyball, swimming and canoe racing — at existing venues outside the capital. But she bowed to pressure from the International Olympic Committee and agreed to build facilities for all three within the city as originally planned.
In the end, however, those cost-cutting measures, such as they existed, were mostly for naught.
In March, the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed until next summer, making Japan the host country of the first Olympiad to ever be rescheduled for reasons other than war. Koike, as the governor of the host city, unwittingly and unwillingly made history.
Postponing the 2020 Games is expected to cost several hundred billion yen in addition to what the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the central government and national and international organizing committees have already spent. Delaying the global sporting event will likely exacerbate the capital’s already struggling economy, and Tokyo’s finances have been further strained by a series of stimulus packages issued to local businesses that temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.