Yuriko Koike used to be the next prime minister of Japan. As her political star rose through the 2000s, first with a successful stint as Minister of the Environment under Prime Minister Koizumi, and then with a role as one of his electoral “assassins” in the 2005 general election, her competence, professionalism and resolve led many to float her as Japan’s first female prime minister. Koike wasn’t shy about her own ambitions either; she ran for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2008, ultimately losing to Taro Aso, who went on to suffer the LDP’s crushing first electoral defeat since 1955 the following year. But she has seemed to be out of favour since the LDP returned to power in 2012 under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She served briefly as Minister of Defence in 2007 during Abe’s first stint in office, but no cabinet position was forthcoming this time.
When she announced her intention to run for the Tokyo governor’s office earlier this year, many commentators saw it as a consolation prize for a stalled career; while the job is a senior position with a huge political mandate, it’s far from being an escalator to the upper echelons of national politics. In recent years it’s even seemed to be cursed. Long-serving Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a demagogic provocateur who won fame as a controversial novelist in the 1960s, saw his ambitions to establish a national political party whither upon leaving the office. The job went on to swallow the careers of talented administrator Naoki Inose and accomplished academic Yoichi Masuzoe, both of whose tenures ended in financial scandals and resignation.
Those who believed Koike was aiming for the office simply in the hope of maintaining political relevance sorely underestimated her. Koike has been challenging and uncompromising from the outset of her campaign; she announced her candidacy without the blessing of the LDP’s Tokyo chapter, which huffed and puffed before giving their support to Hiroya Masuda, a former bureaucrat and governor of Iwate prefecture, and even threatened to punish any members who supported Koike. Koike was unfazed, several LDP members defied the rule, and she won the election in a landslide.
Unlike the 2014 election which was run on policy issues, the 2016 election was mostly about personalities. Koike, whose personal politics are progressive on social issues but mainstream conservative on questions regarding Japan’s place in the world, made few policy pledges during her campaign, instead focusing on presenting herself as a reliable, trustworthy, and hardworking candidate who would confront corruption in the city’s government.
To her great credit, she’s spent her first months in office doing exactly what she promised. She inherited two enormous projects from her predecessors—the 2020 Olympics and the relocation of Tokyo’s fish market from its crumbling facility in Tsukiji to a new location in Toyosu. Within weeks of taking office she had exposed incompetence and corruption in both cases. The Olympics, originally forecast to cost less than ¥700 billion, had ballooned by almost five times that, with strong suggestions that officials had known all along that the original figures were unrealistic. Meanwhile, it was revealed that the new fish market had been built without the recommended environmental measures required to shield the market from poisonous contamination in the soil under the site, which was formerly occupied by a gasworks.
In both cases, Koike made the problems public, pushed back, and tried to discover and punish those responsible for both the bad decisions and the cover-ups surrounding them. On the Olympics, her hands are somewhat tied by the city’s contract with the International Olympic Committee, but she is pushing back in the negotiations. As for Toyosu, the market was supposed to move on November 7, but remains in place at Tsukiji without a final decision on relocation until next summer.
That the identification of individuals in each case has eluded Koike speaks to the magnitude of the challenge she faces. What she is confronting is the systematic corruption of Tokyo’s government and bureaucracy, a set of institutions in which decisions are made collectively precisely in order to avoid any possible apportionment of blame—in other words, there is likely no specific person responsible. This is the legacy of Japan’s now-deeply rusted “iron triangle,” the system which formerly served to put the country’s politicians, bureaucrats, and businesses marching in lockstep. Though the iron triangle itself is no longer intact, the decision-making processes it created live on, and are a hugely complex Gordian Knot of special interests and relationships that would-be reformers like Koike must cut through.
Thus far, Koike has been more than capable of that task. Her no-nonsense approach to confronting problems in public and airing the dirty laundry of past administrations has seemingly vexed the LDP’s Tokyo chapter; earlier this month, new LDP Tokyo chapter president Hakubun Shimomura made good on the threat to punish Koike’s supporters, expelling seven ward assembly members from the party. If it’s a fight he wants, he’s apparently got one; the next battle Koike has picked is over scrapping a ¥20 billion special quota in the city’s annual budget which political parties in the assembly can use at their discretion to hand out to whatever causes they deem fit.
Speaking to the assembly early in December, Koike laid out her program quite clearly; more reforms, more transparency. Her message to an assembly many of whose members, even those of her own party, are hostile to her administration carried an undercurrent of threat; she spoke of encouraging Tokyo citizens to keep an ever-closer eye on the activity of the assembly, reminding them that whatever they may think of her tactics, the public likes what she’s doing. Learning her politics under the wing of Prime Minister Koizumi may have the now-Governor Koike contemplating appointing her own “assassins” for troublesome assembly members in future local elections—a strategy that would almost certainly succeed in the current climate. With this kind of political savvy, personal popularity, and administrative competence, perhaps Koike’s sidestep into Tokyo politics is no consolation prize after all; the woman who was once Japan’s future prime minister could still have her eye on that prize.
Rob Fahey is a PhD researcher at Waseda University's Graduate School of Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @