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Over the nearly three decades since Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike entered politics by winning an election as a candidate of a now-defunct small opposition party, she has enjoyed prominence on the national stage, particularly given speculation she might someday become Japan’s first female prime minister — something that has only intensified following a strong showing in a recent Tokyo election.

At the same time, her career is littered with political parties joined and then abandoned, earning her the nickname among critics as the “wandering bird of Nagatacho,” a reference to Japan’s political heart in Tokyo. Critics, while acknowledging her charisma, charge that she’s more style than substance, and better at politics than governing.

Yet she remains a political survivor.

After Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) performed better than expected in the July 4 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections, speculation has grown that she might once again migrate back to national politics by either returning to the Liberal Democratic Party, which she left in 2017, or forming a new national party.

Powerful LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who remains close to Koike, has said he’d welcome her return to the party, while former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani has floated the idea of a new conservative party under Koike that could ally itself with the LDP. Other media commentators have suggested she might turn Tomin First into a national party in time for this autumn’s general election, and work with the ruling coalition afterwards.

National opposition parties are also paying attention to the 69-year-old Koike’s next move.

On July 8, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan tweeted that the upcoming general election is for Koike her last shot at becoming prime minister. He suggested that Nikai might put Koike forward as a candidate for prime minister if the LDP doesn’t win big in a general election under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike campaigns with Tomin First no Kai candidates in Chofu, Tokyo, on July 3. | KYODO
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike campaigns with Tomin First no Kai candidates in Chofu, Tokyo, on July 3. | KYODO

Koike herself has made no comment on any of the speculation and has publicly denied interest in returning to the national political arena. But as a former environment minister and defense minister who became the LDP’s first ever woman to run for the LDP presidency in 2008, she has long had an eye on becoming Japan’s first female prime minister.

Over the course of her career, Koike has attracted a wide spectrum of critics. Most recently, her coronavirus response measures as Tokyo governor have failed to halt the spread of infections, and at the same time they have angered local businesses forced to reduce hours or close.

At the end of June, just before the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, it appeared Tomin First would suffer heavy losses. But in a surprise move, she suddenly checked into the hospital citing overwork and exhaustion. Despite this, Koike resurfaced just before the election, appearing at party campaign rallies.

The move raised questions about its timing and just how serious her illness was, but voters appeared to sympathize. Tomin First candidates got a last-minute boost, while the LDP and Komeito failed to win a majority. One exit poll by Kyodo showed that 67% of respondents supported Koike.

Keiko Ishikawa, a public relations and risk management consultant, suggests it was all part of Koike’s political strategy.

“I don't think Koike is the type of person who collapses when it's important to stay in the game (during an election campaign),” Ishikawa said. "She seems to have taken that approach because it looks better, in terms of public visibility.

"You can't really attack someone who is overworked and collapses. In that sense, I think she has the ability to capture people’s hearts."

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike holds a placard reading
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike holds a placard reading “short-term intensive infection control measures,” a slogan relating to the city’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, at a news conference in Tokyo on Nov. 25. | REUTERS

Manabu Matsuda, a former Diet member and representative of the Matsuda Research Institute policy think tank, notes that Koike, a former television announcer, has a superb command of the medium, projecting an image of glamor and exhibiting skill at coming up with phrases — sometimes in a mix of Japanese and English — that make for good TV sound bites.

“The governor creates an atmosphere and is very good at utilizing catchy slogans as a way to cleverly use words to show she’s doing something new,” he said.

Koike’s use of television — along with her use of slogans and English-studded phrases — is particularly important for her political strategy because so many older people get their news primarily, if not entirely, from television.

"There is also a sense of intimacy due to the effects of repeated (television) coverage — Koike knows that. So it can be said that she likes to use short words that stand out and get featured on TV," Ishikawa said.

What policy goals Koike has as a politician is the subject of much debate. As an LDP member, she supported the party's defense and diplomatic goals. But unlike in Osaka politics, where both Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and Mayor Ichiro Matsui created a new political party — Osaka Ishin no Kai and Nippon Ishin no Kai — with the goal of merging Osaka city’s wards, Koike and Tomin First appear to have no similar local goal for Tokyo.

Ishikawa and Matsuda say that Koike has no real fundamental political beliefs.

“Gov. Koike is mostly interested in herself," Ishikawa said. "It's all about being in the spotlight, not about being right or left politically."

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