Tokyo Governor Hopes Her New 'Party Of Hope' Will Shake Up Japanese Politics

Oct 20, 2017
Originally published on October 20, 2017 10:19 am

Japanese voters have just days left to decide who they will support in a snap general election set for Sunday.

Japanese politics are usually tame. But this time around, the charismatic governor of Tokyo is adding unexpected elements to the race.

Yuriko Koike is keeping a nonstop schedule these days — dashing from one campaign event to another. Last Friday, rain didn't keep her from revving up crowds at rush hour in Shibuya, the Tokyo district renowned for the giant crush of people at its street crossing.

"Let us look at what we can do now to change Japan, and dare ourselves to do so," Koike said, speaking of her Kibo no To party — which translates to Party of Hope. The party emerged just weeks ago to challenge the ruling party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"For seizing the issues and recognizing that there was a window of opportunity, I think she deserves a good deal of credit," says Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst with Teneo Intelligence.

Koike is a savvy politician and a telegenic former news broadcaster. She used to be aligned with Prime Minister Abe, serving in his cabinet and as a member of his Liberal Democratic Party. But things went sour after she wasn't returned to high-profile roles. She ran for Tokyo governor as an independent last year, besting an LDP candidate for the job.

Now she's taking the unusual step of leading her new party — whose members are drawn from the former Democratic Party — despite not running for a parliamentary seat herself. The Democratic Party is nearly defunct but still has some candidates in Upper House elections.

"One wonders the extent to which it is personal. She had basically been shunted off to the side, and this is her revenge," Harris says.

As Tokyo governor since last year — and one of Japan's rare female leaders — Koike stands out. Japan ranks near the bottom among other developed countries when it comes to gender equality, especially among political and business elites.

Naoko Shimazaki, among those attending Koike's Shibuya campaign event, put it this way: "That she's able to succeed as a woman and since she's promoting the appointment of women, I think that's a positive trend for businesses and for society in general."

Talk of Koike running for prime minister someday is common.

"Whatever happens with this election," says Taro Oguchi, a 19-year-old student getting ready to vote for the second time in his life, "I think that if Ms. Koike could become a possible candidate for prime minister, I'd like to support her."

As governor, Koike has the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, but she could try and re-enter the parliament before then. For now, there's no sign she's slowing down. Her campaign stop in Shibuya was one of seven or eight daily public events she has scheduled in the run-up to Sunday's balloting.

"We in the Party of Hope are not trying to be left or right — but right in the center," Koike says in her stump speech.

But that, analysts say, is actually part of a problem. Not presenting enough of a difference between her party and the prime minister's means voters lack a clear policy alternative.

"If the alternative appears to be there, voters will turn out. But if it's not, they'll stay home," Harris says.

John Matthews contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Voters in Japan have just days left to decide which candidates they'll support in a snap general election called by the prime minister. Japanese politics are usually pretty tame. But as NPR's Elise Hu reports, the charismatic governor of Tokyo is giving things a jolt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YURIKO KOIKE: Konnichiwa.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is keeping a nonstop schedule these days, dashing from one campaign event to another. Last Friday, rain didn't keep her from revving up crowds at rush hour in Shibuya, the Tokyo district renowned for the giant crush of people at it's street crossing.

KOIKE: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: Let us look at what we can do now to change Japan and dare ourselves to do so, Koike said of her Kibo no To party which translates to Party of Hope. It is brand new, constituting itself just weeks ago to challenge the ruling party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Koike started the Party of Hope after the former opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, fell apart.

TOBIAS HARRIS: For seizing the issues and recognizing maybe that there was a window of opportunity, I think she deserves a good deal of credit.

HU: That's Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst with Teneo Intelligence, a political risk advisory firm. He describes Koike as a savvy politician and a telegenic former news broadcaster. She used to be aligned with Prime Minister Abe, serving before in his cabinet and as a member of his party. But things went sour. She ran for Tokyo governor as an independent. And now she's taking the unusual step of leading a party even though she's not running for a parliamentary seat herself.

HARRIS: One wonders the extent to which it's personal in the fact that she had been - basically had been shunted off to the side. And this is her revenge.

HU: As one of the rare female leaders in Japan, she stands out. Japan ranks near the bottom of all countries when it comes to gender equality, especially among its political and business elite. One of the Koike supporters we found in the crowd, Naoko Shimazaki, put it this way.

NAOKO SHIMAZAKI: (Through interpreter) That she's able to succeed as a woman and since she's promoting the appointment of women, I think that's a positive trend for business and society in general.

HU: The talk about quickly running for prime minister someday is quite common in Japanese politics. Taro Oguchi is a 19-year-old student getting ready to vote for only the second time in his life.

TARO OGUCHI: (Through interpreter) Whatever happens with this election, I think that if Ms. Koike could become a possible candidate for prime minister, I'd like to support her.

HU: As governor, she has the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, a high-profile priority for the country. But that doesn't mean she won't try and jump back into parliament before then. And there's no sign she's slowing down now. The stop in Shibuya was one of the seven or eight public events she has scheduled daily in the run-up to Sunday's balloting.

KOIKE: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: We in the Party of Hope are not trying to be left or right but right in the center, Koike says, concluding her stump speech. But that, analysts say, is actually part of the problem. Not presenting enough of a difference between her party and the prime minister's means voters lack a clear policy alternative - Tobias Harris.

HARRIS: If the alternative appears to be there, voters will turn out. But if it's not, they'll stay home.

HU: And that is the opposite of hope - Elise Hu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.