More than just a pretty face to lure voters

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2005, 12:00am

She laughs off the suggestion that she is an 'assassin', but Yuriko Koike is clearly taking no prisoners in the last days before Japan's general election.

Armed with a quick smile and an even quicker tongue - both of which confirm her previous job as a television news presenter - Ms Koike, 53, is turning heads in the working class Tokyo No 10 constituency.

The environment minister is busy on the streets, shaking hands and addressing crowds from her campaign bus, but some opponents believe she is letting herself be used as a pretty face to lure votes in the Ikebukuro district.

'It was me who decided to leave my Hyogo prefecture constituency to run in Tokyo,' she says to suggestions that she was hand-picked by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as his proxy in the battle against Koki Kobayashi, one of the Liberal Democratic Party politicians who voted against privatisation of the massive postal service last month.

'I'm here to give people an alternative choice. I'm not an assassin; I want to allow people who support Mr Koizumi to express their opinions,' she said. 'I want to mitigate the resistance and push ahead with reforms in this rapidly changing world.'

Her opponent Mr Kobayashi has held the seat since 1990 and is indignant at the way he and the other rebels have effectively been purged from the party.

'The LDP is no longer a liberal or democratic party,' he protested at a recent press conference between the two candidates.

'Mr Koizumi is sending assassins into our districts, but we are not the enemy. The party must listen; simply to suppress opposing ideas is negative.'

Barely able to look at Ms Koike, he tried to dismiss her challenge with a barbed compliment.

'She is very attractive, but politics should not be about fashion,' he said. 'The voters must remember how hard I have worked at my job.'

Mr Koizumi has enlisted the help of a record 26 women in Sunday's election, with Ms Koike and eight other high-profile women given the toughest tasks against the most entrenched hardliners.

The Japanese media has dubbed them his lipstick ninjas, with the tabloids devoting considerable space to Ms Koike - partly because of speculation that the prime minister, a divorcee, and his minister are an item.

Born in 1952, Ms Koike's career has been unorthodox and suggests she does not like to sit still. She started out studying in Egypt, where she received a BA in sociology from Cairo University.

Fluent in Arabic and English, she was a television newsreader for 13 years before being elected to the Diet in 1992 as a member of the Japan New Party. After merging with the New Frontier Party, she was appointed assistant secretary-general until the party was dissolved and she moved on to the Liberal Party.

From there, she was a founding member of the New Conservative Party in April 2000, but after finally joining the LDP, she was given the environment portfolio by Mr Koizumi in September 2003.

Ever since, she has been one of his most loyal supporters, as well as something of a breath of fresh air in the corridors of power. This summer, she appeared in a mini-skirt for a poster to promote the 'cool biz' casual office attire campaign to reduce global warming.

'There is a very close resemblance between Japanese politics and traditional kabuki theatre,' she said. 'All the actors are male, are descendants of other people in the same job and as the story line is always the same, the crowd knows when it must laugh or cry.

'I want to change Japan's political culture, which is also what Mr Koizumi is doing.

'The rebels believed that he was not brave enough to call an election and they expected him to resign. Instead, he has overturned the tradition of harmony within the LDP and surprised the rebels.'

Her aim, Ms Koike says, is to have the electorate debate the issues rather than simply vote for a person who has held the seat for many years and to bring more women into the Diet.

Japan lies in 101st place in the Inter-Parliamentary Union's ranking of the number of women in parliament.

Her media background served her well in the press conference with Mr Kobayashi. She answered his questions on postal privatisation and got in some barbs, suggesting he was 'panicked' into setting up New Party Nippon after being ousted from the LDP and suggesting he should take his tie off to help stop global warming.

And while she is undoubtedly clever, there is the suggestion that Ms Koike may just be a little too clever for the voters of Tokyo's No 10 constituency come Sunday.