What Does Tokyo's New Governor Mean for Japanese Politics?

 
 

On July 31, Tokyo elected its first female governor. Yuriko Koike, the former defense minister who also served as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s special advisor on national security when he was first in office between 2006-2007, scored a landslide victory, wining by more than one million votes. She took over the office from Yoichi Masuzoe, who resigned in mid-June over a spending scandal.

When Koike first announced her intention to run, it sparked discord within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has a ruling majority in Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Wary of endorsing another “celebrity” candidate who could be forced to resign over financial and other personal scandals, the LDP leadership had already begun exploring several candidates who are former bureaucrats at the time of her announcement. When Koike indicated that she would run regardless of whether the LDP endorsed her or not, it triggered a strong negative reaction from the party’s rank and file, including Nobuteru Ishihara, son of former Governor Shintaro Ishihara and the chairman of the LDP Tokyo Metropolitan Branch, who went so far as to say “she will no longer be considered a member of LDP from this day forward.”

To be fair, Koike never enjoyed a party-wide support in LDP.  Her frequent changes of party affiliation—she first ran for office as a candidate from the Japan New Party (Nihon Shinto) in 1992, then changed her affiliation to New Frontier Party (Shin-Shin to), Liberal Party (Jiyu-to), and New Conservative Party (Hoshu-to) before joining the LDP in 2002—make some people call her “Political Migrant Bird” (Seikai Watari-dori). Even after entering the LDP, she has switched her allegiance among different party seniors, including Abe. In other words, if you are a fellow Diet member who needs a loyal political ally, you are unlikely to find one in Koike. Some, particularly those who are longtime LDP members, also have been critical of her in the past for being only interested in being in spotlight. Finally, many ask about her ability to govern, which is largely untested.

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Despite such misgivings about her, how did she win?

First and foremost, what unfolded during the campaign for the gubernatorial race last month was a clear demonstration of the public’s frustration with the current political stagnation in Japan. Koike ran as an independent candidate, promising Tokyo residents that she would make the management of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government more transparent. She also appealed to the voters that, with the string of former governors who had faced criticism for misconduct (including nepotism and misuse of official funds for personal use), the city needs a governor that put Tokyo residents need first. On the other hand, the LDP, endorsed Hiroya Masuda, former governor of Iwate Prefecture, as the party’s official candidate. Masuda ran on his “past experience as the Iwate governor” and was considered to have a leg-up vis-à-vis Koike because he, as the official LDP candidate, had a backing of Komeito, LDP’s local city and town assembly members, and the votes from various professional organizations.  This gave the voters in Tokyo, a large number of whom are unaffiliated and independent voters, the perception that the “old boys club” (the LDP who backed Masuda) were trying to push the newcomer (Koike) out because she refused to play by their rules and sought to make a change.

In addition, the opposition parties fumbled. The Democratic Party struggled to build a coalition among non-LDP opposition parties to endorse a single candidate. When the opposition parties finally decided to back Shuntaro Torigoe, a famous TV news anchor, as their unified candidate, he turned out to be a very ineffective candidate. He ran on the platform of anti-constitutional reform and anti-nuclear power, but those issues had very little resonance with voters, who were much more concerned about issues such as employment, the lack of childcare facilities, and above all, the responsible management of the city government.  Torigoe offered neither the image of change that Koike carried nor the experience of Masuda. Finally, his inappropriate behavior with women in his workplace during his time as a TV anchor constantly put him on the defensive to explain his past behavior.  In other words, the Democratic Party utterly failed to offer a credible alternative candidate that could seriously challenge Koike and Masuda which, in turn, contributed to Koike’s landslide victory. Following a big loss in the Upper House elections in July, the Tokyo gubernatorial election became one more failure by the Democratic Party to offer a viable alternative to the LDP (after all, although Koike ran as an independent, she is still technically a LDP member).

On her first day as the Tokyo governor, Koike articulated her determination to “put the citizens of Tokyo first” and push for reform in the way the Metropolitan Government and Metropolitan Assembly conduct their business. However, many challenges await Koike’s effort. She will have to work with the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, where the LDP, which Koike alienated in this election, holds the majority, to implement her agenda.

The LDP leadership, including Abe, will watch her performance as the governor closely as well. Should she complete her four-year-term as a governor, she would be the hostess of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Despite strong resentment against her for breaking away from the party in this election, the LDP leadership will now be forced to work with her in order to ensure success in hosting the Olympics. The fact that the LDP is unlikely to rid her of LDP membership is a telltale sign that the LDP leadership, faced with the election result in which the voters in Tokyo rejected their officially endorsed candidate by a wide margin, is trying to come to term with the reality that they will have to work with her.

For Koike, running in the governor’s race was a high-risk decision: had she lost, her political career would have been essentially over as long as she stayed in the LDP. Now that she has won in what could have been the biggest political gamble in her career, she will have to show that she is worthy of the confidence of the voters in Tokyo.

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