When Yuriko Koike ran to become governor of Tokyo in 2016, her candidacy gave voters hope that the city might move in a new direction — one in which childcare, gender inequality and climate change would be given the attention they deserve.
During her campaign, she spoke of helping parents whose children had been put on waiting lists for admission to day care, promised she would work hard to make Japan a place where women can find success on equal terms with men and wore a green sash to signify her concern for the environment.
However, with four years having passed and experts saying little progress has been made, some believe that support from the marginalized voices that christened her first victory may no longer be present during the upcoming election on July 5.
In 2016, Koike hung her platform on “seven zeros,” a shortlist of issues she promised to annul completely if elected.
Eliminating the number of children put on waiting lists for admission to day care by the end of her term was one of them. In 2016, more than 8,400 children were wait-listed, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Not only does rejection from day care delay a child’s social development, it makes it nearly impossible for their parents to work full-time jobs. High turnover among day care workers is thought to be one of the biggest causes of this deep-rooted issue.
The number of wait-listed children has declined by nearly 70 percent in four years, according to Koike, who said around 2,300 such children remain in 2020.
While the number hasn’t reached zero, the governor has made significant progress during her time in office. However, experts say the root of the problem — the lack of support for day care workers — remains unchanged.
“Children put on waiting lists, day care staff shortages and parents having to abandon their jobs to raise their children — these are all women’s issues that Koike promised to address but didn’t follow through to the end,” said Misako Iwamoto, a humanities professor at Mie University and an expert in gender and politics.
Koike has come closer to becoming prime minister of Japan than any woman in history. And yet, Iwamoto said, she hasn’t put forward enough policy concerning the rights and well-being of women.
Koike is the ninth elected governor of Japan’s capital. When she first ran for governor in 2016, her victory seemed a long shot — her own party had endorsed a different candidate and no woman had ever held the position before.
Her bid for a second term, however, is anything but.
The governor of Tokyo is tasked with the responsibility of presiding over 14 million residents, shepherding a gargantuan government body staffed by more than 170,000 people, maintaining a functional relationship with the central government and neighboring prefectures, and balancing foreign diplomacy in order to maintain the global image and economic status of the international metropolis that is the Japanese capital.
With a gross domestic product nearing $1 trillion, according to the Cabinet Office, Tokyo would have the 17th biggest economy in the world if it were a country in its own right. The capital accounts for more than 20 percent of the nation’s economy, which is the third largest behind the United States and China.
In her “seven zeros” pledge, Koike said she would also tackle overworking in the capital, the number of adults who stop working to take care of their parents, packed crowds on rush hour trains, overground electricity poles, the disparity between Tokyo’s central 23 wards and the prefecture’s outer regions as well as the euthanizing of domestic animals.
Rush hour trains have been temporarily calm — owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the declaration of a state of emergency in early April— and the euthanizing of dogs and cats has been reduced to zero in Tokyo, at least, in animal shelters operated by the metropolitan government.
However, Koike has failed to achieve most of her campaign promises, Iwamoto said, adding that she wished the governor had put forward policies aimed at protecting women from poverty and domestic violence.
“Many young women voted for Koike because they thought she would be an ally,” Iwamoto said. “But few of her policies, if any, were targeted at raising up and supporting women.”
Koike’s efforts seem to have fallen short in the eyes of climate advocates as well.
In December, the governor revealed the Zero Emission Tokyo Strategy, the capital’s long-awaited plan to eliminate carbon emissions, shift to renewable energy and thus take the lead in the fight against the ongoing climate crisis.
At the time of its announcement, experts said the plan needed stricter parameters to make sure benchmarks would be met, but mostly offered praise for its ambitious intentions.
But little has been done since the announcement was made, said Takayoshi Yokoyama of 350 Japan, the local branch of a global environmental advocacy group.
“I expected more from someone who served as environment minister,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought towns, cities and nations around the world to a standstill. While the declines are marginal, the consumption of fossil fuels and nonrenewable energy sources has fallen in many urban centers.
Many observers are lauding efforts to reopen society as an opportunity to shift to a different path, one in which cities like Tokyo prioritize the environment and reduce its relatively large carbon footprint.
They hope the pandemic will demonstrate to policymakers in Japan the importance of listening to scientists and scientific research when making decisions.
During the outbreak in Japan, inaction from the central government forced municipal leaders to take the initiative, Yokoyama said.
“If only Koike would do the same with the climate crisis,” he said. “Tokyo is the capital and whatever the governor does, for better or worse, will serve as a model for the rest of the country.”
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