Japan Fields a Powerful New Woman Politician

Yuriko Koike has been called the most powerful woman in Japan and a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For now she is concentrating on affirming her unquestioned position as the most powerful woman in Tokyo.

People of the Japanese capital go to the polls July 2 to choose members of the 127-seat Tokyo Assembly (Koike herself is not on the ballot). Tokyo assembly elections have been bellwethers for national politics.

When in 2009 the opposition Democratic Party of Japan swept the assembly polls, it presaged the major victory that ousted the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Its dramatic drubbing in 20013 confirmed the party’s steep fall from favor.

But it is not the familiar faces, but a host of newcomers who were personally recruited by Koike who will decide who runs Tokyo. She is fielding a new party called the ‘Tokyo First Party,” which she hopes to win as many as 60 seats in the Assembly.

She has also formed an alliance with the Komeito Party, which normally votes in alliance with the governing LDP in parliament but is supporting Koike in Tokyo. Its suburban supporters are attracted to her good-government persona.

Koike, who formally resigned from the LDP June 1 to head her new party, has been encouraged by the results of a recent by-election in Chiyoda Ward, in which the incumbent Mayor Masami Ishikawa handily defeated three challengers including one supported by Abe.

The governor has an unusual way of selecting candidates. She formed a private political school called Kibo no Juku (School of hope) that attracted a few thousand aspiring politicians.

She then had them write essays on such topics of political reform or good governance, and after winnowing the essayist list, she chose some 60 candidates to run for the assembly. If successful and with the support from Komeito she will have a majority.

Her public approval ratings are 67 percent favorable (some polls are even higher). They blow everyone away, including those of Shinzo Abe, whose ratings, though lower than Koike, are still strong, especially for a premier in office for five years.

Voters seem attracted to her modest life style and openness, especially coming after her predecessor was forced to resign in part for allegedly using government funds to pay for luxuries.

Koike lives in a middle-class house in a nondescript part of Tokyo with her cousin and his children (she has never married) and her pet fox terrier.

She is in favor of open government almost to a fault. Olympics Chief Thomas Bach no doubt had assumed he was flying into Tokyo for a private tête-à-tête with the governor over the spiraling costs of the Olympic Games, which Tokyo plans to sponsor in 2020. He found Koike had turned the meeting turned into a media event.

The big issues that have occupied such of her time have been the Olympics and its cost overruns and the movement of Tokyo’s historic Tsukiji fish market to a new location. The move was a pet project of one of Koike’s immediate predecessors, the right-wing Shintaro Ishihara.

The move was to have taken place last November, but Koike has put a freeze on the move after it was discovered that the ground on which it rests had been grossly polluted by the residue of a coal gasification plant where the new fish market is to be located.

Koike has served in two Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cabinets, first as minister for environment under former premier Junichiro Koizumi, and briefly as minister of defense in the first Abe administration (she shares Abe’s hawkish views on security and national defense).

However, she was not given a portfolio in the second Abe government and languished on the backbenches, until the governor was removed for malfeasance. She took the plunge as an independent, handily beating all of the opposition, riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.

As governor, she has tended to avoid making pronouncements on national issues facing parliament, such as the new security laws, North Korean missile tests and so on while concentrating almost full time on local issues.

That is in marked contrast with the last political figure who tried to parlay his political lock on Japan’s second city to influence national politics, the former mayor of Osaka Toru Hashimoto.

Hashimoto forged an alliance with then-Tokyo governor Ishihara, of fish market fame, to form a new conservative grouping. The new Restoration Party managed to win about 50 sets in the Diet in the 2014 election. The Restoration Party still wins seats around Osaka but has faded as a national party.

For the moment, Koike shows no signs of wanting to follow in Hashimoto’s footsteps, and the name of her party – Tokyo First – doesn’t sound like it would resonate in the hinterland. That doesn’t mean that she couldn’t merge the party and drop the name sometime in the future.

Koike isn’t the only woman to be touted as potentially the first female prime minister. A former television presenter who goes by the name of Renho was chosen to head the official opposition, the Democratic Party, and give it some much needed sex appeal.

However, Renho doesn’t seem to have turned things around for the hapless Democrats, who face the prospect of losing even more assembly seats to Koike’s new political party.

Then there is Tomomi Inada, minister of defense in the Abe government, who is touted by some commentators as Abe’s favored successor. However, she hasn’t distinguished herself in parliament, either.

The prime minister, who was re-elected recently to a third term as LDP president, could still be in office in 2021, so there is still plenty of time for a new candidate for first female premier emerging.

Todd Crowell toddcrow2000@yahoo.com is a Tokyo-based correspondent and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel