After incumbent Yuriko Koike cruised to victory in the Tokyo gubernatorial election on July 5, the mainstream media concluded that hers was a passive campaign. Thanks to Koike’s frequent emergency news conferences related to the COVID-19 crisis in the weeks leading up to the election, she didn’t need to do much. The press events not only provided her with visibility, but showed her performing her duties proactively. The one development that might have capsized this plan — an unflattering biography of Koike published just as the campaign was gearing up — turned out to be a nonstarter because the mainstream press, at least, rarely mentioned it, which means Koike, despite saying she was “prepared to be a punching bag,” was never directly confronted with some of the issues brought up by the book’s author, Taeko Ishii.

Asked her opinion of the results during a July 10 TBS radio interview, Ishii said she had expected Koike to win but, unlike the mainstream media, didn’t find the victory to be “overwhelming.” Maybe it was in terms of numbers, but not in terms of passion.

When public broadcaster NHK surveyed voters about why they chose Koike, the most cited reason was that they preferred her to the other candidates. Although news outlets made much about the candidates’ feelings regarding the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics — several pledged to cancel it — the issue seemed to figure low on the public’s priorities, with only 6 percent telling NHK they voted for Koike because of her approach to the games. In an article posted June 30 on Harbor Business Online, the writer analyzed Koike’s performance during a candidates’ forum carried out online, and concluded that 48 percent of the governor’s responses were irrelevant to the question asked, while another 25 percent were either repetitious or just statements of already well-known information.

Even if Koike’s win was anticlimactic, history shows that is usually the case. Tokyoites frequently vote to return the incumbent. In his 2016 Gendai Business article about the Tokyo governorship, critic and editor Yusuke Nagakawa says outgoing governors are usually replaced with “cultural figures” (bunkajin). In Japanese politics, there are three elements considered essential for success: money, base constituents and name recognition. Money and constituents are supplied by political parties, but cultural figures tend to come with their own name recognition. Until the end of World War II, prefectural governors were appointed. After the war, they were elected, and, until 1959, the governor of Tokyo was a former bureaucrat who just happened to be governor when the war ended. In 1959, the winner was a physician who helped win the bid for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He decided not to run in 1967, when Ryokichi Minobe, a scholar who also hosted a program on public broadcaster NHK’s educational channel during the period when TV was the ascendant medium, won with the backing of the socialist and communist parties. Minobe served three terms, during which he stood in opposition to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Minobe retired in 1979, and was succeeded by the LDP-backed Shunichi Suzuki, a former bureaucrat who remained in office until 1995. Since then, the governor’s seat has been held by a series of cultural figures who differed in terms of political ideology and temperament. Yukio Aoshima, a popular TV writer and performer, won in 1995 on a single issue — canceling World City Expo Tokyo. Once he accomplished that, he declined to run again, and was replaced by Shintaro Ishihara, a recognized novelist and lawmaker who left the LDP to run as an independent. After Ishihara resigned at the beginning of his fourth term in 2012, he was succeeded by three more cultural figures, Naoki Inose, a best-selling writer (and Ishihara’s vice governor), Yoichi Masuzoe, a popular TV pundit, and Koike, a former newsreader.

Another feature of gubernatorial elections in Tokyo is that the candidate field is often filled with attention-getters, meaning people who don’t expect to win but want to gain recognition for themselves or their causes. In that regard, the biggest winner this time was far-right provocateur Makoto Sakurai, who placed fifth in the final tally with 178,784 votes. As Koichi Yasuda, the co-host of web channel No Hate TV, put it, 1 out of every 63 Tokyo voters chose Sakurai, a statistic he finds significant since Sakurai openly advocates for the expulsion of resident Koreans and other non-Japanese. In the 2016 gubernatorial election, Sakurai garnered about 114,000 votes. Writer and activist Yasumichi Noma, Yasuda’s interlocutor on No Hate TV, said that he believes racism, be it latent or overt, underlies the entire Japanese political spectrum, from far right to far left. Such a view has meaning right now given the worldwide attention being paid to the problem of bigotry as exposed by the Black Lives Matters movement, which has expanded from the United States to almost every country in the world, including Japan.

With that in mind, Sakurai’s interests are ideological and national in scope, two other characteristics of Tokyo gubernatorial races. Both he and another candidate, Taro Yamamoto, the former actor who heads the nominally left-leaning Reiwa Shinsengumi party, advocated for abolishing the consumption tax, which the Tokyo governor has no authority over. When Ishihara was governor, his main political concern was national security.

So it’s notable that the media sees Koike’s next move as returning to national politics with her eyes on the ultimate prize — becoming Japan’s first female prime minister. With the Tokyo governorship on her resume and a generally favorable public opinion of how she’s handled the COVID-19 crisis (so far), regardless of what next year holds in store for the Tokyo Olympics, she has a much better chance of achieving that goal than she had when she was just another cultural figure in the LDP, which she left on bad terms when she sought the governorship. The real question isn’t whether the LDP will take her back, it’s whether they can afford not to.

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