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12 August 2017updated 02 Sep 2021 2:38pm

Who is Yuriko Koike, the most powerful woman in Japan?

Tokyo's ambitious governor, whose supporters wave broccoli in honour of her green slogan.

By Joji Sakurai

“You idiot, you’re about to meet the governor!” In a surreal televised moment, one of Japan’s most celebrated film-makers – the winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in 1997 – emerged from a limousine dressed as Donald Trump, with a blond wig and red tie, on his way to visit the governor of Tokyo, a city of more than nine million people.

Takeshi Kitano, better known in Japan as the comedian “Beat Takeshi”, brushed off the scolding from his dark-suited sidekick waiting outside city hall and strode through the sliding glass doors to meet Yuriko Koike, Tokyo’s first female governor and Japan’s political star of the moment.

Koike, 65, is a former newsreader who last year broke ranks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to run as an independent for Tokyo governor – a position roughly equivalent to that of London’s mayor. She won in a landslide after promising to tackle corruption, empower women, clean up Tokyo’s environment and restore its lustre as a leading financial centre.

In July, she humiliated Abe again by taking on the LDP in the Tokyo assembly elections with her newly formed “Tokyoites First” party and guiding it to victory. Many now give her a fighting chance to succeed the long-dominant Abe, who has been in power since 2012, and become Japan’s first female prime minister.

Koike’s encounter with Kitano showcased the qualities that brought her to power in Tokyo and drew comparisons with France’s Emmanuel Macron, who also rode a wave of popular disgruntlement with the political status quo. The beaming governor glided into the room to greet a somewhat cowed-looking Kitano in English – “Hello, nice meeting you” – before cracking up into hysterics at the practical joke.

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It was political theatre, staged and opportunistic. In the 20-minute conversation that followed, Koike outlined her reformist vision, stressing a commitment to cut the skyrocketing costs of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while trading jokes with Kitano. Koike’s performance, mixing humour, an articulate command of policy and toughness, demonstrated why she has been able to go head to head with Abe and others in the male-dominated political arena.

Koike has built a life out of bucking convention, a lesson she learned from her trading magnate father, who told her when she was a young girl, “It’s shameful to do what everybody does.” After dropping out of university in Japan, she studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo. Back home, her fluent Arabic helped to secure her a job at a TV network, and as a news commentator she made her mark by challenging the views of the male host. She entered politics in 1992, joining the reformist Japan New Party during a period of political upheaval before switching to the LDP, and went on to become environment minister and Japan’s first female defence minister under Abe during his earlier stint as premier.

Though today she can be counted as a member of the establishment, Koike has successfully rebranded herself as someone who could uproot the clubby and collusive world of Japanese politics. During campaigning, she was swamped by crowds in Tokyo plazas, her more environmentally conscious fans waving broccoli and scallions in honour of her slogan “Koike Green”.

“Her predecessors were symbols of the old, male-dominated society. Koike was chosen as a reaction to that,” says Shoko Tanaka, a Tokyo clothing company employee.

Tanaka supports the governor for her pledge to help women balance their career and family, especially by addressing a chronic shortage of childcare places, which reflects the expectation that mothers will care for their children at home. With the world’s highest overall longevity, 83.7 years, and one of the lowest fertility rates, 1.43 births per woman, Japan sits on a demographic time bomb. One of the nation’s urgent priorities – to protect younger generations from a crushing pension-and-debt burden – is to create opportunities for women to pursue careers after childbirth, something that Koike vows to do in Tokyo.

“As a working mother, it’s heartening to have a leader putting emphasis on childcare places and the environment,” says Tanaka, who has first-hand experience of Tokyo’s notorious queues for nursery places. Like many people in the city, however, she is taking a wait-and-see attitude regarding Koike – scepticism born of decades of disappointment with charismatic reformers: “I want her to be a governor who carries out what she says.”

In a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood, Teruyuki Sugimoto has run one of Tokyo’s best greengrocers for the past half-century. He has a salty way of talking, typical of parts of the city known as shitamachi, or “downtown”.

“We’ve been spitting into the heavens,” he says of the pollution that Koike promises to tackle, “and now the spittle’s falling right back into our face.” He respects Koike’s intentions, especially when it comes to taking on corruption – “The Tokyo assembly has long been a den of demons,” he says – but he is less confident about her chances of making a difference.

Koike’s predecessor, Yoichi Masuzoe, was also a popular TV commentator who promised sweeping reform. He was forced to resign last year amid revelations that he had raided political funds for holidays and fine dining. Koike enjoys an impeccably clean image but falls into a line of celebrity Tokyo governors, which has included a TV comic and a novelist, who ultimately delivered more talk than substance. “She’s good at manipulating the media,” Sugimoto says.

Takao Miyamoto, who runs an upmarket bar in Tokyo’s Nakameguro district, sees the Koike phenomenon as being largely about her seizing of the right political moment, as Abe suffers from personal scandals, such as allegations of abusing his influence to help friends, and voters sense that he has grown complacent from a big parliamentary majority.

“Koike stepped in as Tokyoites were getting fed up, wanting somebody to clean out the stables,” he says, but adds: “We haven’t seen results yet.”

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This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon