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[Mythbusters] Tokyo Re-elects a Woman, Yet Foreign Media Sticks to Stereotyping ‘Backward’ Japan




On July 5, Yuriko Koike, the first female governor of Tokyo, won re-election by a wide margin. As widely reported, she received 3,661,371 votes, compared to 844,151 for her nearest rival. She received nearly 60% of all votes and would have sailed to victory even if there had been only one other serious challenger.


The remainder of the vote was split among protest and “joke candidates,” including one who used his mandated airtime on NHK to prance around in a soiled adult diaper.




How Important is the Governor of Tokyo?


Although a city in popular terminology, in the Japanese system Tokyo has the same standing as a prefecture. Its head is a governor (知事), not a mayor.


The current estimated population of Tokyo is over 14 million, making it larger than European countries such as Belgium, Greece, Portugal, Sweden, Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Ireland, among others.


The economy of Tokyo alone is put at $1 trillion USD. This, again, is larger than many European countries, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Ireland, and Denmark. 



As Michael Cucek, assistant professor at Temple University Japan, observed on Twitter, the Tokyo governorship can be seen as the third most important and powerful sub-national political post in the world, ranking only below the governors of California (39.9 million) and Texas (29.5 million).



Largely Overlooked by International Media


Despite the importance of the position and her gender, the re-election of Governor Koike received scant attention in the English-language media, both in absolute terms and relative to unrelated frivolous issues, such as high tech toilets, that are so attractive to foreign journalists.


Of the major general interest newspapers, only The New York Times (NYT) had a substantial article written by one of its correspondents. The Washington Post (WaPo) made do with a generic Associated Press story. The Economist (U.K.) gave her 50 words in a laundry-list article entitled “Politics this week.”



The Guardian (U.K.) ignored her re-election. Its Japan coverage just before her election took up the subject of deer scat (poop), and just after reported on mating fireflies.


The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal had coverage geared to their audience, with an emphasis on whether the Tokyo Olympics might actually take place during Koike’s second term.


Most other coverage was perfunctory and used wire service copy.



The excuse of ongoing COVID-19 news and the almost certainty of her re-election may have worked to limit coverage. Nonetheless, the prominence of the post and her gender, coupled with a steady flow of Japan trivia in the “quality papers,” makes the limited coverage that much more striking.



The Wrong Kind of Woman on Top?


Koike is frequently described as conservative, or even an ultra conservative, in English-language coverage. This may be part of the explanation for the limited reporting on her re-election.


This is also suggested by the fact that Fumiko Hayashi, the mayor of Japan’s second largest city, Yokohama, has received almost no attention in English, despite being popular enough to win election three times running. She too is considered to be conservative.



Thus, we have the case of Motoko Rich, The New York Times Tokyo bureau chief, who, before coming to Japan on her first foreign assignment, covered “the economy, real estate, publishing and education” in the United States. Rich has repeatedly written articles about the so-called gender gap in “male-dominated” Japan, damning Koike with faint praise and characterizing her as “ultraconservative.”


Rich does not explain why she uses the label “ultraconservative” for Koike. She first uses it in the context of the revision of Article 9 of the U.S.-imposed Constitution. It states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”


Koike does indeed support the revision of the Constitution, and when she formed her abortive Party of Hope (Kibo no to), she made support for its revision a condition for joining the party. That does not, however, make Koike an “ultraconservative,” either in the Japanese context or in American terms.




Koike and the Koreans


To support her “ultraconservative” characterization of the governor, Rich describes Koike as “burnishing her credentials with hard-line conservatives” by being “the first Tokyo governor to refuse during an annual ceremony to pay specific tribute to Koreans who died in a massacre after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.”  


Koike has said that she does not think it is appropriate to single out a particular group when there were so many casualties. Critics say that the ethnic aspect warrants special notice in the case of Koreans who were killed by vigilantes rather than by the earthquake or the fires that followed. 


These ceremonies have not been a high-profile issue, and Koike has neither needed nor courted “hard-line conservatives” by using this issue or in other ways. Analysis of the July 5 voting, for example, shows she garnered substantial support even from voters who indicated a preference for left-leaning parties.



Rich goes on to make a second point about Koike and Koreans that is both inaccurate and devoid of key contextual information. She writes:


She also revoked a lease of public land to a new school for ethnic Korean residents, many descended from people who were brought to Japan as forced labor before and during World War II, when Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula. 


Ethnic Koreans in Japan have historically been divided into two major factions, those who look to South Korea and those who look to North Korea. The former send their children to Japanese public schools. 



The latter operates its own school system with a separate curriculum that has taught veneration of the Kim dynasty and North Korean political ideology. In other words, they at least nominally support the dictatorial regime headed by Kim Jong Un.  Human Rights Watch describes North Korea as “one of the world’s most repressive states.”  


North Korea is known to have kidnapped citizens from numerous foreign countries, including the then 13-year-old Megumi Yokota. In November 2019, Kim Jong Un threatened to use the North Korean ballistic missile capability against Japan.


Bellicose rhetoric aside, there is no obvious reason why public land should be leased to the North Koreans or any group wanting to operate schools. It is hard to imagine any level of government in the U.S. offering public land to any group directly or indirectly associated with North Korea, or any country taking a similar bellicose line against the U.S.


An alternative explanation for Koike’s stance is that she astutely deprived the right-wing of an issue that had been used against her predecessor, Yoichi Masuzoe. The author of the thesis suggested that Koike lacked a moral compass and was only interested in numbers. He predicted that this would harm her in the future, but in his commentary on her re-election victory, he appeared singularly impressed by her victory and made no mention of his earlier claims about her allegedly anti-Korean stance in an informative series of posts on Twitter.



Ideology aside, as with the Japanese population at large, the ethnic Koreans in Japan have a low fertility rate.This means fewer and fewer school-age children. A number of schools have been closed. There is no demographic reason for a new one.


Number of North Korean School Students 2009-2019


Whether the ancestors of North Koreans in Japan came as free migrants or forced labor is irrelevant to the issue of providing public land for their schools. Ethnic Koreans of any affiliation are free to use the Japanese public school system. Most, in fact, do so.



Academic Credentials Challenged



Foreign accounts usually describe Koike as a graduate of Cairo University and a fluent speaker of Arabic. Both claims have been repeatedly questioned by the novelist Ryo Kuroki, a graduate of a different institution, the American University in Cairo. Cairo University itself has certified that Koike is a graduate.


Motoko Rich was the only major foreign journalist to raise this issue.


While there might be a question of political ethics if Koike has misrepresented her credentials, neither this nor her fluency in Arabic have any more relevance to her performance as Tokyo governor than does her enthusiasm for cosplay — that is to say, no relevance at all.


Until proven otherwise, this query into her academic background looks suspiciously like a misogynist effort to discredit Koike, although one of those pushing this line was in fact a woman, Taeko Ishii (石井妙子), who authored a book entitled The Empress: Yuriko Koike, which has become something of a best seller. Sites allegedly supporting women in Japan carried some of the most scurrilous accusations against her.



Tokyo voters wisely seem to have focused on what Koike is doing now rather than accusations unrelated to her ability to govern the city, including what she did or did not do as a student in Egypt more than a half-century earlier.



Koike vs Abe


In English-language coverage of Koike, it is an article of faith that she and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are arch rivals and that Koike might be Japan’s first female prime minister. Simon Denyer in The Washington Post went so far as to claim that there was an Abe-Koike rivalry similar to the Cuomo-Trump rivalry. This comparison can only be described as ludicrous.



Koike is now 67. That is on the high side for a Japanese prime minister. She would also need to win a seat in the Diet (upper or lower chamber) and have the backing of the ruling political party, which is now the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — something that is unlikely to change in the near future.


She did, however, have the tacit support of the LDP this time in running for governor in that the ruling party chose not to field a candidate to stand against her.


A more realistic expectation is that, rather than fielding her for prime minister, the LDP will need to consider her views and secure her support. Her success may also lead the LDP to recruit more women candidates and to support them.


In my electoral district, all five candidates for a vacant municipal assembly post were women — something that was noted by Japan’s national news media. The winner was the LDP candidate who had an impressive collection of support statements from much older male LDP stalwarts, in what looked like an effort to give the LDP a more modern appearance.




‘Rhetorical Device’ as Excuse for Misleading Readers


As someone who grew up in a very Republican milieu in the United States and as someone who was a U.S. voter for a quarter of a century, I found it exceedingly hard to see Koike as conservative, let alone ultraconservative. That perception also applies to most others so styled by foreign pundits.


If one draws up a list of issues associated with conservatives or ultraconservatives in the U.S. — such as “right to life,” prayer in public schools, the teaching of evolution, devolution, Second Amendment rights (private possession of any and all types of firearms), etc. — these have few, if any, advocates in Japan.



When I queried one foreign correspondent on this point, he replied that the conservative terminology was a “rhetorical device” intended to make Japanese politics understandable to non-Japanese. My view is that it has just the opposite effect, and is irresponsible or even journalistic malpractice.





While there are a few competent foreign journalists who have years of experience in Japan and who write based on Japanese-language sources, the NYT and the WaPo give us functional illiterates who are parachuted in for a few years before being moved to yet another assignment.


I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that a large segment of the English-language news media manifests contempt for Japan and the Japanese. This is evident in the poor quality of their coverage, reliance on misleading labels, and preference for frivolous stories about deer scat, robots, and washlet toilets. 



Further, after authoring numerous reports asserting that Japan is singularly backward when it comes to women in positions of power, it seems that they are reluctant to confront the fact that the voters in Tokyo have twice decided that a woman is competent to govern a metropolitan area encompassing 14 million people. 


By re-electing Koike, the voters have shown the degree to which foreign perceptions of Japan are based on shallow stereotypes perpetuated by foreign reporters.



Author: Earl H. Kinmonth


Follow Dr. Kinmonth here at JAPAN Forward through his Mythbusters series, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter .@bull_japanese.


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  1. aw_jpusa

    July 20, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    Earl continues his campaign to screech loudly into the abyss at foreign journalists, this time calling them "functional illiterates." This is a tremendously insulting diatribe coming from someone who would spew incoherent nonsense like this:

    "If one draws up a list of issues associated with conservatives or ultraconservatives in the U.S. — such as 'right to life,' prayer in public schools, the teaching of evolution, devolution, Second Amendment rights (private possession of any and all types of firearms), etc. — these have few, if any, advocates in Japan."

    Of course these issues do not, as these are issues that are not relevant in ANY conservative context outside the Evangelical Christian context of the United States. For someone who seems intent on smearing all foreign journalists in Japan as racist illiterates, Earl reveals his Amerocentric worldview.

    In the Japanese context or even in a European context, for instance, Koike is very conservative. She was a member of all of the extremist Sect-Shinto religious-linked parliamentary groups while in the Diet.

  2. Edo Naito

    July 18, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    I am constantly amazed at the relatively low quality of the people that western media post to Tokyo. The political reporters for Reuters, Bloomberg, FT are in the same league as the ones cited at WaPo and NYT. They write to a preset narrative and never let the facts get in the way of that. Essentially, they are fed cut and paste copy by Kyodo who now also does the same for Japan Times, as well as Asahi and Mainichi and the aforementioned western media. Is it any surprise that if you compare articles by that group on a topic you will find they are similar to the point of disbelief even including the same quotes by the same people? They are down to copying each other. The more readers turn away from newspapers to get the news the worse the product is becoming. And gives an opening to the better-funded far left-leaning media sites to manipulate the entire presentation of Japan to the world, falsely, unfairly, and with malice aforethought. Social media is no substitute but I despair at where the younger people are getting fact-based news versus a stream of writers' opinions in the guise of news.

    • Edo Naito

      July 18, 2020 at 5:52 pm

      My apologies as I neglected to add the "chicken little" of financial reporters Willy Pesek to the above list who has been predicting Japan's implosion all the way to book awards. He should get an award for always being wrong.

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