National / Politics

Koike cruises to win in Tokyo governor race, vowing to continue fight against virus

by Ryusei Takahashi

STAFF WRITER

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike cruised to a resounding victory in Sunday’s gubernatorial election, securing a second term and marking the end of a predictable campaign held during unpredictable times.

The incumbent, who entered the race with overwhelming support from both ruling and opposition parties, was pitted against a slew of lesser-known candidates in a campaign overshadowed by the unnerving presence of a pandemic.

The governor’s re-election — having received 3,661,371 votes, far more than her next closest challenger, Kenji Utsunomiya, a 73-year-old lawyer and former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, at just 844,151 votes — was a tacit sign that a majority of voters in Tokyo trust Koike to continue her battle against the novel coronavirus.

The total number of votes garnered by Koike was the second largest in the history of Tokyo gubernatorial elections, after the 4,338,936 collected by Naoki Inose in the 2012 poll, according to the Metropolitan Government.

Turnout in the election, which also saw Taro Yamamoto, 45, a former actor turned leader of anti-establishment party Reiwa Shinsengumi finish third with 657,277 votes, was 55 percent, down from 59 percent in the 2016 poll.

Koike said she aims to focus her efforts on preventing, and preparing for, a possible second wave of the novel coronavirus by enhancing testing capacity, increasing the number of hospital beds and bolstering the city’s health care system.

She said she’s not considering requesting business closures amid a recent surge in new infections.

“The infections are beginning to be pinpointed individually,” she said. “Rather than asking for business closures overall, I would like to think of an effective method (to curb infections).”

She also said she aims to establish Tokyo’s own center for disease control, akin to the U.S. CDC, to consolidate the city’s response to the virus and stage a “simplified” Olympics next year due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her election comes on the heels of a weeklong surge in new infections in Tokyo.

While other candidates called for the delayed Tokyo Olympics to be postponed even further to 2022 or 2024 — or canceled altogether — Koike said she believes COVID-19 can be overcome in time for the capital to host the quadrennial global sporting event next summer.

Koike, 67, was first elected governor in 2016 following a landslide victory. In that election, she ran against her own party and secured 44 percent of the vote to become the capital’s first female leader.

Four years ago, she raked in more than 2.9 million votes, while trailing candidates received around 1.8 million and 1.3 million votes. Voter turnout in that election was about 59 percent.

Since then, her tenure in office has been defined by unsteady results.

From the costly relocation of the iconic Tsukiji market and multiple attempts to forge a new political party to the historic postponement of the 2020 Games and an unsettling initial encounter with the pandemic, experts say Koike has little to show after four years at the helm.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Koike hung her platform on “seven zeros,” a shortlist of socioeconomic issues she vowed to resolve if elected.

Eliminating the number of children put on waiting lists for admission to day care by the end of her first term was one of them, and saving thousands of dogs and cats in the capital from euthanasia every year was another.

Koike said the number of wait-listed children has been reduced by more than 70 percent — from 8,400 in 2016 to 2,300 in 2020 — and that the number of euthanized domestic animals has been brought to zero, at least in animal shelters operated by the metropolitan government.

Most experts agree that the remaining five of the “seven zeros”— which include tackling a culture of overwork in the capital, alleviating packed crowds on rush hour trains, getting rid of above-ground electricity poles, among others — haven’t been resolved and continue to burden the city.

Koike has spent nearly three decades climbing the political ladder, first at the national level then later in the capital.

She studied Arabic at American University in Cairo and received a degree in sociology from Cairo University, after which she worked as an interpreter and later as a news anchor in 1979.

She was elected to the Upper House of the national Diet in 1992 and served as environment minister in 2003 under then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. She became defense minister in 2007 for a brief period — less than two months — under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The veteran politician was a key figure in the upper echelons of the Liberal Democratic Party until she abandoned her political allegiances in 2016 to seek the governorship.

A hawkish conservative nationalist with unclear political ambitions, Koike supports the revision of history textbooks and was secretary-general of the Diet member’s Committee of Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, the country’s biggest right-wing organization.

Koike has long been criticized as a populist with superficial policy, but her political prowess and media savvy — not to mention that Tokyo somehow avoided the kind of devastating coronavirus outbreak occurring in other parts of the world — gave her an undeniable advantage over other candidates in the election.

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