Not afraid to buck the trend, Yuriko Koike has earned a number of nicknames en route to becoming Tokyo's first female governor. But can popular support make up for a lack of allies? Martin Fritz reports from Tokyo.
Amid high voter turnout, Tokyo residents made a clear choice on Sunday, July 31, for 64-year-old Yuriko Koike as the Japanese capital's next and first female governor. She tallied up 44 percent of the votes, receiving more than a million votes than the nearest of 20 other contenders, a rival from her own party. Her promises of a more transparent and effective government resonated in a city whose two previous governors Yoichi Masuzoe and Naoki Inose were forced to step down amidst corruption allegations.
Koike has said she wants to modernize the city in the next four years according to two outlines. For one, Tokyo will become "Dive City," a play on the English word "diverse," where the capital's different groups of residents live together in harmony. Concretely, she aims to improve child care, create more jobs and leadership positions for women, and lower taxes.
Tokyo will also become a "smart city," one that relies more on renewable energy, for example, with more charging stations for electric-powered cars. She also wants to bury the city's chaotic tangle of above-ground power cables, thereby creating more space on the streets.
But some doubt her ability to realize such ambitious designs given her tenuous connections to the country's establishment. Koike belongs to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but threw her hat in the ring for the governorship without its support. The move split the conservative electorate in the vote, with the officially endorsed LDP candidate, the former governor of Iwate prefecture Hiroya Masuda, finishing in second. The LDP holds the majority in the city's parliament and therefore also the ability to make Koike's life difficult.
Her relationship to the powerful former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (LDP), who now heads the organizing committee of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, has also already suffered a hit after her announcements that she would work to lower Tokyo's burden in paying for the event.
Her candidacy without the agreement of her party's leadership has reinforced her reputation as "Madame Sushi-go-round." The nickname, referring to the conveyor belts that carries sushi around some restaurants for diners to pick and choose, plays on her frequent changes of affiliation throughout her career.
She entered parliament in 1992 attached to an LDP break-away party. Afterwards, she switched over to the predecessor of today's opposition Democratic Party. But she later became one of the so-called "assassins" that LDP Prime Miniser Junichiro Koizumi hand-picked last decade to defeat his party rivals in a vote. She was given the office of environmental minister in return. She then was chosen as minister of defense in Shinzo Abe's first cabinet in 2006, but gave up the office after only 55 days, due to a dispute with the cabinet speaker.
'A migratory bird'
In 2008, she made an unsuccessful run at the LDP's chairmanship. Following her defeat, she worked to build an internal party network and became involved in a revisionist group of lawmakers that serves as the mouthpiece of the ultraconservative Nippon Kaigi ("Japan Conference") movement.
Nevertheless, the LDP's leadership kept her at a distance. Though he had committed himself to a more equal proportion of women in his administration, Prime Minister Abe, also connected to Nippon Kaigi, left the popular Koike out of his cabinet when he returned to the top office in 2012 and did not stand behind her candidacy for the governorship. The Japanese press has described Koike as a migratory bird with few political convictions. She is better known for her tendency to break with convention.
Koike studied Arabic in the 1970s as one of very few Asian women in Cairo and worked afterwards as a translator for the Japanese-Arabic Community (she has yet to make any comment on Middle East policy). She married at 21-years-old, though the marriage ended soon after. She later became a successful TV host without creating any political scandals.
'Japan's Condi Rice'
Despite her rather cosmopolitan education and frequent shifts in political affiliation, her tendency towards conservative views has earned another nickname - that of "Japan's Condi Rice," in comparison with the principled, conservative and female US Secretary of State Condeeleza Rice. She makes a visit each year to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine for Japan's war dead and demands the return of the Kuril Islands from Russia. She calls for progress for women in society, but rejects municipal election rights for foreigners and equal rights for gays.
On the other hand, she has cultivated an eco-friendly reputation, wearing a green headband on the campaign trail. She started the "Cool Biz" fashion campaign as environmental minister in 2005, aimed at lowering the country's electricity consumption. Since then, Japanese office workers have sported ties and jackets less frequently during the hot summer so that air conditioning could be cut back. But she hasn't touched the controversial issue of nuclear power.
She has also declined to comment on the corruption allegations against her predecessors, perhaps because she is not safe from such charges herself. Rumors of financial irregularities and dubious donations are already coursing through Tokyo's tabloids. The campaign for the governor's office has just begun, one dark headline reads.