JAPAN POLITICS

Rogue won: Tokyo’s first female governor says defying party secured her historic win

Yuriko Koike, formerly a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, ran without the party’s endorsement, effectively splitting the LDP vote

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 10:37pm

Tokyo’s new governor Yuriko Koike has credited her landslide victory to having stood up to the powers that be in Japan’s ruling party who didn’t want her to run.

Koike, 64, was elected Tokyo’s first female governor in the Sunday vote, winning more than 2.9 million votes, far outpacing the nearly 1.8 million ballots cast for closest challenger Hiroya Masuda.

Masuda, a former governor of Iwate prefecture in northern Japan, was the favoured candidate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner.

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The LDP spurned Koike, an LDP member, for failing to seek its approval before announcing her candidacy, with a top party official calling her “selfish”.

Koike, however, had the last laugh after her campaign drew huge crowds during street rallies ahead of the vote.

“I fought this race without support from the party, and people joked I was like the sole player in a theatre company,” she told reporters early Monday.

“But in the end it allowed us to move freely rather than restricting us.”

The election was called after previous governor Yoichi Masuzoe resigned over a financial scandal involving the lavish use of public funds on hotels and spa trips - the second successive Tokyo leader to quit.

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A key challenge facing Koike will be to get a grip on Tokyo’s troubled path to hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, which has been plagued by scandals and cost overruns.

She vowed late Sunday to be transparent on the budget and restore the trust of voters in the sprawling metropolis of 13.6 million people.

Her defeat of Masuda, a veteran administrator who had won plaudits as governor of northeastern Iwate for 12 years, was a huge embarrassment for the conservative party.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, expressed disappointment that Masuda lost but hinted the LDP could work with Koike.

“It is important for the central government to cooperate (with the new governor) for the benefit of the Japanese people,” he said.

Suga said any punishment for Koike’s defiance of the LDP in running in the election without its endorsement would primarily lie with its Tokyo chapter.

The party having backed the wrong horse is also embarrassing for Abe, who has vowed to improve conditions for women in male-dominated Japan so they can better contribute to the economy by taking senior positions in business and government.

But he personally never campaigned with Masuda at his street rallies, while local media reported that the prime minister, who had once placed Koike in key national security posts, may have tried to distance himself from his party’s harsh stance towards her.

Hakubun Shimomura, special adviser to Abe, said Koike’s run had been an “anti-party act” and that the party will hold a committee meeting to debate possible punishment such as expulsion from the LDP.

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Besides facing opposition from the LDP, Koike was also subject to verbal abuse from Shintaro Ishihara, who served as governor for 13 years.

“We should not allow the old, old woman with a heavily powdered face to take the reins of Tokyo politics,” Ishihara, 83, said at an LDP rally in support of Masuda.

We should not allow the old, old woman with a heavily powdered face to take the reins of Tokyo politics
Shintaro Ishihara

Koike calmly refuted the attack, explaining that she has to cover a mark on her face, which observers say gathered sympathy from voters.

“Although her policy record as a Diet lawmaker did not especially stand out, Koike was good at using the narrative of a woman bullied by the LDP establishment,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a professor at Tokyo University’s department of media and communications.

Although turnout was low at about 27 per cent, voters overwhelmingly backed Koike, a onetime television news anchor who not only speaks English but also Arabic, which she learned as a student in Egypt.

Koike turned her journalistic fame into political clout more than a decade ago, when she became one of the female “assassins” campaigning for then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, and against former members of his party whom he wanted to dump.

Hillary used the phrase ‘glass ceiling’. It’s often a sheet of steel in Japan
Yuriko Koike

Voters also had little hesitance in picking a woman to run the metropolis for the first time, said Nobuo Sasaki, a professor on Chuo University’s faculty of economics.

They have become familiar with female leaders overseas including South Korean President Park Geun-hye, British Prime Minister Theresa May and US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Sasaki said.

“Hillary used the phrase ‘glass ceiling’. It’s often a sheet of steel in Japan,” Koike told a TV talk show, comparing herself to Clinton.

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Offering a contrast to both Koike and Masuda was veteran journalist Shuntaro Torigoe, 76.

Although early polls gave Torigoe a fighting chance, he was sunk by a lack of clear alternative policies and a sexual harassment allegation dating from 2002 revealed in weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun during the campaign.

All three named resolving the shortage of day care places for the capital’s young children as their top issue. Some 8,466 infants and children were on waiting lists as of April 1, according to the metropolitan government.

Koike pledged to loosen regulations to increase the number of day care facilities and early childhood care workers, while Torigoe focused on infrastructure targets such as a requirement that such facilities are included in all new apartment complexes.

According to Sasaki, the key to whether Koike can clinch re-election will be how well she works with the rest of the metropolitan government to make changes Tokyoites can feel in their daily lives.

“Whether Koike will be able to cut costs and enhance transparency in her ‘Great Tokyo Reform’ will hinge on her management of people and ability to delegate,” Sasaki said.

“The metropolitan government is a big organisation, and in order to run it well, one has to be a bit frightening, like (1999-2012 Tokyo Governor Shintaro) Ishihara was,” he said.

She will also need to mend ties with the Tokyo chapter of the LDP, which with its partner Komeito makes up nearly two-thirds of the metropolitan assembly. The budgets for her promised policies will need the assembly’s approval.

Koike said she intends to attend the August 21 closing ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Games for a handover of the Olympic flag.

“It’s the governor’s duty,” she said. “I think I will just have to make a rush trip.”

Agence France-Presse, Kyodo, The Washington Post