• The Star Staff

Tokyo’s 1st female governor sails to reelection even as virus cases rise



By Motoko Rich


In rewarding Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike, with a second term Sunday, voters endorsed her highly visible leadership as the sprawling metropolis has avoided the kind of spiraling death toll from the coronavirus seen in other world capitals.


But a recent resurgence in cases in Tokyo has made clear that her challenge is far from over.


Even as Koike, 67, cruised to victory Sunday, with exit polls by Japanese news media showing her winning 60% of the vote, Tokyo reported 111 new infections, its fourth straight day over 100.


The creeping increase in cases has started to raise anxieties that the capital may have to reinstate elements of the nearly two-month state of emergency that it emerged from at the end of May. That growing caseload was felt in the election: About 15% of voters cast their ballots before Sunday, and turnout on election day was just above 37%.


During the emergency period, in which the government issued voluntary requests for businesses to limit operations and residents to stay home, Koike made herself the face of Tokyo’s response to the virus. She anchored near nightly news conferences to deliver daily test figures and advice on how to avoid infections.


Koike presented a stark contrast to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who often appeared stiff in front of the news media. He was widely criticized when he posted an awkward video on Twitter showing himself at home drinking tea with his dog. Koike was a much more relaxed presence when she appeared in a jovial conversation with Japan’s most famous YouTube star, Hikakin.


“Seeing her face on television every day made me feel comfortable,” Yuki Matsuura, 70, said as she voted in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo. “I think that she is doing the best that she can in a very difficult situation.”


Koike said she was unlikely to request citywide business closures as she had during the earlier state of emergency. She said that she would prefer a “pinpointed” approach and that she wanted to establish a Tokyo version of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


A total of 22 challengers vied for the post. Koike’s main rivals for the governor’s seat tried to differentiate themselves by staking out positions on further delaying, or even canceling, the Tokyo Olympics. Abe and the International Olympic Committee announced in March that the games would be postponed from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic, and Koike has stuck to the official line.


Same-sex partnerships were another dividing line in the race. Three of Koike’s most significant opponents expressed support for them: Kenji Utsunomiya, a former president of the Japan Bar Association who was backed by the country’s largest opposition parties, including the Communist Party; Taisuke Ono, a former adviser to the governor of Kumamoto in southern Japan; and Taro Yamamoto, a former actor and the head of a newly founded party.


When asked about the issue during an online question-and-answer session, Koike said she “didn’t know” whether she would support such a policy.


The victory Sunday for Koike, an ultraconservative former defense minister who speaks English and Arabic, was something of a turnabout for her. Just a few years ago, she had seemed to have fallen out of favor with the public: In 2017, an upstart party she founded to challenge Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party in national elections took a drubbing, forcing her to admit “total defeat.”


Until the pandemic, Koike’s record of achievements had been thin, and some of her decisions have drawn criticism.


Not long after she was elected in 2016, she postponed a controversial move of Tokyo’s famous seafood market from its historic location in Tsukiji when it emerged that contaminants in the groundwater at a newly built site far exceeded environmental limits. But she went through with the move a year later even as tenants suspected that the metropolitan government had suppressed information about the safety of the new site.


She also led an initiative to ban smoking in most indoor venues in Tokyo. Burnishing her credentials with hard-line conservatives, she was the first Tokyo governor to refuse during an annual ceremony to pay tribute to Koreans who died in a massacre after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. 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.


Surveys of employees of the metropolitan government, which oversees a region of 14 million people, indicate that she is far less popular among her city’s staff than she has been with voters.


As an incumbent, Koike started with a considerable advantage, particularly given that the Japanese news media tends not to ask tough questions of candidates or investigate their records. The only thing that came close to a challenge to Koike were rumors that she had falsified her graduation from Cairo University in Egypt, prompting the Egyptian Embassy in Tokyo to post confirmation on its Facebook page that she had received a diploma.


“The Japanese media likes scandals, but they don’t really do any serious policy review or anything that really affects our livelihood,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. The Japanese media “fails to inform us or fails to ask questions of the incumbents who have a huge advantage and owe us an explanation of their past record.”


Koike has also managed to portray herself as a renegade. Although she started her political career as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and served briefly as defense minister during Abe’s first term as prime minister, she has run for governor as an independent. Some analysts say she is more adept at political performance than actual policy.


“She is very good at presenting catchy slogans or sound-bite phrases,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo. “I don’t think she has achieved substantive policies during her first term, but she often appears in television programs, especially after the outbreak of COVID-19, and she pretends to handle the problems.”


Kazuhisa Tanaka, 63, who was voting in the Setagaya ward Sunday afternoon, said he had cast his vote for the incumbent by default.


“I don’t think that Koike has done the best job,” he said. “But who else would I vote for?”

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