Koike Yuriko last night became the first ever female governor of Tokyo, elected in an emphatic victory with a margin of well over a million votes more than her closest competitor. All other considerations aside, Koike’s election is worthy of celebration simply for smashing through a glass ceiling. The Tokyo Governor’s office has not only been exclusively occupied by men since its inception, it was for many years occupied by outspoken misogynist and bigot Ishihara Shintaro, who – true to form – made some grossly misogynistic comments about Koike during this election campaign. Her election in spite of that to one of the nation’s most high profile political offices is a historic step forward in Japan’s steady but agonisingly slow progress on womens’ representation in politics.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with the nomination of Hillary Clinton last week in the United States. While winning a gubernatorial race is not quite on the same scale as becoming a major party’s presidential nominee, the comparisons are apt. Both Clinton and Koike are to be celebrated for breaking down barriers for women, but both are also problematic figures. The parallels between them are striking. While both of them have quite progressive or moderate views on domestic, economic and environmental policy (Koike having previously served as a very effective Environment Minister in the cabinet of Koizumi Junichiro), both are aggressive and hawkish in terms of foreign and defence policy. Just as Clinton was noted for her hawkish stances as Secretary of State – reportedly being talked down from even more aggressive uses of force by Obama and others on several occasions – Koike’s position on defence issues is also aggressive. Though her service as Minister of Defence was very short-lived, her career has been marked by statements and actions of a hawkish nature. She is strongly supportive of changing the pacifist Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, takes a hardline stance on the country’s territorial disputes with Russia, China and South Korea, and supports the rewriting of Japanese history textbooks to downplay war crimes and reinterpret Japan’s wartime actions.
In light of this, it’s understandable that many of those who want to celebrate the election of a woman to a traditionally male-dominated high office find themselves conflicted. Especially in the foreign press, which is often obsessed with Japan’s historical revisionist factions to the exclusion of all other concerns, Koike’s election has been met with mixed feelings. Her hardline foreign policy views, although by no means particularly extreme or outside the mainstream of Japanese politics, have overshadowed the positive qualities that voters saw in her. Whatever her ideas on history or defence, she has proved to be an effective, competent and canny politician in a number of demanding roles. Her three-year tenure as Environment Minister saw the successful roll-out of a number of initiatives, most notably the “Cool Biz” and “Warm Biz” efforts to convince companies to relax dress codes in order to allow employees to dress appropriately for the season and cut down on the use of heating and air conditioning. Like many successful policies, Cool Biz has become so widely accepted that it now seems like straightforward common sense, but Koike’s success in convincing the deeply conservative Japanese business establishment to change their attitudes and policies was the result of skilful implementation of a policy that required the bringing together of many different stakeholders.
Koike’s achievements in office are suggestive of her potential as Tokyo Governor. In theory, this job should allow Koike to effectively use her strengths while keeping her hawkish, problematic side in check. On paper, the governor of the metropolis has minimal involvement in foreign and defence policy; the Tokyo Governor needs to maintain the relationship with US bases within the Tokyo Metropolitan District (most notably the Yokota Air Base), but the primary responsibilities of the job are domestic and managerial. This did not, however, stop the aforementioned Ishihara from causing a significant deterioration in Japan-China relations during his tenure. He attempted to purchase the disputed Senkaku Islands from their private owner on behalf of Tokyo, forcing the national government to step in and buy the islands instead and thus upsetting a delicate status quo that had lasted for decades for no other purpose than self-aggrandisement and his insatiable urge to remain the centre of attention through provocation. Koike, for all her hawkishness, is a far more stable and measured figure than Ishihara, who was Japan’s Trump long before America even had a Trump. She should be able to avoid any repeats of her predecessor’s idiocy and get on with the demanding job of governing the world’s largest metropolis without getting caught up in foreign policy distractions.
It’s not foreign policy distractions, though, that are the biggest risk to a Tokyo Governor. Having forced the resignation of its past two incumbents in high-profile financial scandals, the Tokyo Governor’s seat has come to be seen as a poisoned chalice that’s more likely to end a career than boost it. As a consequence, Koike ran against a rather unimpressive field of rivals. The joint opposition candidate, Torigoe Shuntaro, is an ageing, cantankerous journalist with no public office experience who seemingly didn’t understand the first thing about the role he was running for – and spent much of his campaign talking about political issues far beyond the purview of a governor. The LDP candidate, former Iwate Governor Masuda Hiroya, is a reasonably competent but deeply unexciting politician whose high profile blaming of Tokyo for population decline in other parts of the country may be largely true, but does not exactly inspire confidence in his ability or will to run the metropolis effectively. Koike, a senior LDP figure herself, ran as an independent against the wishes of Tokyo’s LDP chapter – whose president, incidentally, is former governor Ishihara’s utterly hapless son – and handily defeated Masuda at the ballot box.
Only two other candidates managed to score over 1% in the election – progressive former journalist Uesugi Takashi, who polled about 2.7%, and the ultra-right-wing former leader of the overtly racist Zaitokukai group, Sakurai Makoto, who managed about 1.7%. The 115,000 votes cast for Sakurai, while depressing, represent a massive decline in the ultra-right vote from just two years ago, when ultra-right candidate Tamogami Toshio (currently facing a police investigation for campaign finance irregularities; how is it that candidates who bang the drum for law and order never seem to realise that laws apply to them too?) took over 600,000 votes on much lower overall turnout. That Koike’s more moderate hawkishness was good enough for right-wing voters who might otherwise have transitioned from Tamogami to Sakurai actually seems like a positive to me, suggesting that the majority of those voters were significantly more moderate than their chosen candidate in 2014.
In an uninspiring field of candidates, Koike was absolutely the most impressive. It would have been fascinating to see her run against the Democratic Party’s Tokyo councillor, Renho, who is probably the country’s most popular female politician; but Renho still has ambition to lead her party and perhaps the country, and likely views the Tokyo job as a dead-end rather than a stepping stone. Koike was once considered a likely future prime minister, but her career has stagnated under Abe’s leadership; for her, the high-profile Tokyo position is a consolation prize of sorts.
Crucially, Koike has also done a good job of keeping her nose clean in her political career thus far, and has a temperament suited to high office (brushing off Ishihara’s sexist comments about her with an airy “I’m used to it”). This may allow her to do something that no governor of Tokyo has done this decade – actually finish her term in office without being forced to resign under a cloud of scandal. Tokyo local politics chews up and spits out governors; Koike, should she restrain her hawkish side and keep her nose out of places a governor’s nose does not belong, may be the first governor in years to survive the ordeal.
(Update: I had forgotten that the national government ultimately felt forced to step in to prevent Ishihara’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands, which still had the effect of destabilising the relationship with China but didn’t leave these remote islands inexplicably in Tokyo-to’s ownership. Kasumigaseki will no doubt be hoping never to have to step in to curb Shinjuku’s madness ever again. Cheers to @jjcappa on Twitter for pointing out my omission.)