WALTER HAMILTON. Tokyo’s First Female Governor, and the disturbing state of Japanese politics.

Aug 2, 2016


The victory of 64-year-old Yuriko Koike in last weekend’s Tokyo gubernatorial election tells us a lot about the disturbing state of Japanese politics.

Hailing from the right wing of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Koike holds views on constitutional change, school textbook revision and other contentious issues that line up with those of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. How, then, did she manage to present herself to the electorate as a maverick, non-mainstream candidate and, despite claiming to be ‘fighting alone’, run the slickest campaign of all?

Seeking an answer, we need to recap events of recent years.

The Tokyo metropolitan government has a staff of 165,000 (including 24,000 government officers, 46,000 police and 62,000 school teachers) and a budget equal to that of Sweden’s. The last two (male) governors, who came to office with the backing of the LDP, used the position to enrich themselves and were forced to resign in disgrace. In these circumstances, the governor’s seat was there for the opposition parties’ taking.

The LDP’s predicament was obvious to all, and certainly someone as experienced as Koike. Defense Minister (briefly) in the first Abe government, Environment Minister in the previous Koizumi government, and one-time candidate for prime minister, Koike declared her candidacy before the LDP’s Tokyo chapter was ready to announce its choice. This was one endorsement she could do without.

The widely accepted explanation is that Koike broke ranks because she knew she had little chance of getting her party’s endorsement (the head of the selection committee was the son of a former governor, Shintaro Ishihara, who had never concealed his dislike of her). Driven by personal ambition, she gambled on her high level of recognition with the public. The overly neat way in which events unfolded, however, raises a suspicion about deeper machinations.

Predictably, the LDP’s Tokyo bigwigs disowned Koike for jumping the gun and proceeded to select Hiroya Masuda, a former governor of Iwate prefecture and a minister in the first Abe and succeeding Fukuda governments (2007-08), as the party’s candidate, while warning members they would risk disciplinary action if they supported the self-styled renegade. But, far from being ‘disciplined’, Koike remains an LDP member, and during the campaign Prime Minister Abe studiously avoided being seen with the distinctly un-telegenic Masuda.

Koike was able to portray herself as a woman ‘fighting alone’––a latter-day ‘Joan of Arc’ in her words––against the odds, in defiance of the ruling party and its male-dominated political machine. It proved a winning sales pitch. But how exactly did this ‘lone woman’ manage to put together a campaign better targeted, better organised and seemingly better funded than that of the LDP’s official candidate, let alone the rest of the field?

Computer analysis of Koike’s pattern of campaigning reveals a calculated strategy that hints at the possible involvement of an unidentified ‘mastermind’. (While it’s possible the candidate supplied all the brains, before now she has not been known for political sophistication so much as a talent for opportunistic self-promotion.) Koike concentrated her effort along the routes of the Yamanote and Chuo railway lines. The Yamanote line circumnavigates central Tokyo, while the Chuo is a major trunk line running west to and from the city centre. Stations along these lines are among the busiest in Tokyo; the droves of salary workers, including many younger women, commuting through these stations include a significant proportion of swing voters. By intersecting with this mobile section of the electorate––literally, through outdoor speeches at major intersections­­­­––in repeated appearances, she capitalised on her recognition factor and showed more desperation than her less energetic opponents. In particular, Koike’s strategy contrasted with the geographic scattergun approach of the LDP’s (Trojan-horse?) candidate.

Koike did not have to sell her face, already being familiar to many people, as I’ve said, because of her ministerial experience, as well as from a previous career as a television newscaster. By offering voters the opportunity to put a woman in the chair for the first time, she injected a positive theme into a contest Tokyoites generally viewed with a mixture of disdain, mistrust and boredom. Her victory was greeted with enthusiasm: people interviewed on the street described her, naively, as ‘clean’ and ‘bold’.

If Koike’s campaign was carefully crafted, the inept opposition parties helped enable it. Presented with a golden opportunity, they threw it away.

The main opposition Democratic Party was most to blame. The party’s Tokyo chapter dithered over its candidate selection, forcing the party’s leader to intervene and put up the 76-year-old journalist-commentator Shuntaro Torigoe. The choice turned out to be a disaster. At his first news conference, the Democrat’s candidate admitted to having no policies and asked reporters to give him a few days to think about it. (The first policy this former cancer patient came up with was requiring everyone to be tested for cancer­­––not likely to inspire confidence.) His appearances on the stump were so lethargic many observers wondered whether he was seriously ill or seriously uninterested in winning. He ran a distant third.

The Opposition’s stumbling performance, so soon after losing heavily in national upper house elections, reaffirms the impression that a genuine contest in Japanese politics has almost ceased to exist, leaving the conservative ruling coalition supreme.

So what should we to make of the winner, Yuriko Koike, and why does it matter that she has become governor of Tokyo?

Koike entered politics in 1992, winning an upper house seat for the short-lived Japan New Party of Morihiro Hosokawa. It was a time of voter disenchantment with corruption in the LDP, and new political groupings were seeking fresh faces to put before the public. Koike entered the lower house of the Diet the following year. Over the next decade, she joined and left three more political parties before throwing in her lot with the LDP in 2002.

A fluent English and Arabic speaker, and popular with the media, she has not demonstrated any obvious administrative skill in government. She has been closely associated with the right-wing think-tank Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), which advocates constitutional revision including scrapping the war-renouncing Article 9. She has been a supporter of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which wants to excise or tone down references to Japan’s wartime misdeeds. She promotes visits by politicians to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to Japan’s war dead, which critics regard as a bastion of ultra-nationalism.

During the gubernatorial campaign, the issues Koike concentrated on were less inflammatory: increasing child-care facilities and getting spending on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under control. How she would achieve these goals, however, remained vague. Although, in her new job, she will have no direct input into national government policy, the platform of Tokyo governor has been used in the past­­––notably under the aforementioned Shintaro Ishihara––to propagate right-wing views. On a practical level, the governor can certainly influence the attitudes and behaviour of school principals and police commanders. For instance, how will she respond to the extremists who have been conducting an ugly campaign of ‘hate speech’ against Tokyo’s ethnic Korean community? A notorious ‘hate speech’ organiser was among the twenty-one candidates who ran for governor, receiving no fewer than 100,000 votes.

Koike may not be ‘official’ LDP, but she is in every respect a standard-bearer for its nationalist ideology. Opposition forces fighting against constitutional change have failed to gain an influential platform in Japan’s greatest city for propagating their alternative views. Revisionists could not have wished for a better result.

Walter Hamilton was the ABC’s Tokyo correspondent for eleven years.


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