AJRC PhD Ben Ascione on the Tokyo elections

Large crowds of people at the Shinbayu Crossing, Tokyo

Image: Marc Buehler (flickr)

As Western democracies have faced rising anti-establishment political forces in recent years, the recent Metropolitan Elections in Tokyo ushered in a major change to the status quo with power handed to Yuriko Koike’s newly-formed Tokyoites First party on a scale not seen before. Is Koike’s success evident of a wave of discontent among voters in Japan, similar to what has been witnessed in the US, UK and France? What are the implications of her victory on the upcoming Olympic Games and politics at the national level? Is she on track to become Japan’s first female PM? CAP spoke to PhD candidate Ben Ascione to find out more.

Briefly, on what platform did Yuriko Koike and Tokyoites First run?

Yuriko Koike positioned herself as a reformer who will get things done in the face of political gridlock. A prominent issue she is focused on is reigning in the escalating costs of hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which have quadrupled from original estimates to US$25 billion. Koike delayed the move of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market in light of environmental concerns including contamination at the new site. Koike has also promoted issues to improve the standard of living for Tokyo residents including: resolving the acute shortage of nurseries which discourages mothers from working, banning smoking in public places before the 2020 Olympics, improving earthquake resistance, cutting down on excessive working hours, and resolving rush hour overcrowding on trains.

Is the success of Koike and her Tokyoites First party a reflection of a sense of disenfranchisement among voters in Tokyo?

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has only lost government twice in the National Diet (in 1993 and 2009) and twice in the Tokyo Assembly (in 1965 and 2009). The rise of Koike and her Tomin First No Kai (Tokyoites First) party shows that the current dominance of the LDP and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is more a result of a lack of major credible alternative parties able to garner public trust rather than public support for the LDP itself. Abe’s support rate has fallen sharply recently as he has been afflicted by a number of scandals. These include the preferential sale of land to the ultranationalist Moritomo Gakuen educational institution which has ties to both Abe and his wife as well as the selection of the Kake Gakuen veterinary school run by a family friend of Abe’s for construction in a national special strategic zone in Ehime prefecture.

How would you compare her success to the rise of Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, or Marine Le Pen showing in France’s recent presidential election? Are there parallels?

Given the local nature of the issues Koike is focused on as governor so far it is difficult to compare her Tomin First with the anti-globalization forces in the United States and Europe. Koike does share some of the nationalist and historical revisionist tendencies of Prime Minister Abe. She is a member of the right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) and has visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine which enshrines the souls of Japanese war dead including 14 Class-A war criminals. But her performance as Tokyo governor is better characterised as centrist. The now retired former Tokyo governor (1999-2012) and far right-wing icon Shintaro Ishihara, who stirred trouble in Japan-China relations by interfering in the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute, could be considered much closer to Trump, the Brexiteers, or Le Pen.

What implications does Koike and her party’s success have for Japanese politics on a national scale? Should the LDP and existing political establishment be preparing for a shakeup?

Japan’s three biggest urban centres, Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, are now all controlled by regional parties. If Koike takes Tomin First to the national level LDP seats in the Tokyo area would be vulnerable in the next lower house election which must be called by December 2018. Currently the LDP holds 22 out of Tokyo’s 25 single-member district (SMD) seats in the lower house of the National Diet after the December 2014 election. This is in contrast to Osaka where the presence of the Osaka Restoration Association led by Toru Hashimoto meant that the LDP only managed 9 out of the 19 SMD seats. The story is even more stark for the proportional representation seats of which the LDP only managed 29 per cent in the wider Kansai region.

Koike also convinced the Buddhist political party Komeito to abandon its coalition with the Tokyo chapter of the LDP in favour of a formal alliance with Tomin First in the Tokyo Assembly. Komeito and the LDP have long been coalition partners, since 1999 at the national level, and even longer in Tokyo. The LDP will need to be careful to manage and maintain its coalition relationship with Komeito at the national level and may become more dependent upon it in the future.

Will the outcome of the election have a drastic effect on the upcoming Tokyo Olympics?

The success of the Tokyo Olympics will be important for Koike’s political future beyond 2020. So she is likely to use her governorship to ensure a successful Olympics event. At the same time, Koike is likely to continue to skirmish with the hapless Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa to ensure costs of hosting the games do not get out of hand for Tokyo taxpayers.

Historically there haven’t been many women in high-level political positions in Japan. Has Koike’s gender been a topic of discussion in her rise to power? Have sexism or misogyny been issues in her recent campaigns?

Only 13 per cent of MPs in Japan’s parliament, the National Diet, are women, and they have often struggled to take up high profile positions. The main opposition Democratic Party elected a woman, Renho, as their leader last year, but she has failed to rejuvenate the party. Defence Minister Tomomi Inada, who was once considered Abe’s favoured successor, has struggled with gaffes exposing her nationalist and historical revisionist excesses. So Koike is a rare example of a high profile woman in Japanese politics who has succeeded. She took serious risks, however, to get there: quitting her position as an MP in order to run for governor, and quitting the LDP to establish her Tomin First party and take control of the Tokyo Assembly. This was all in the face of ‘old guard’ Tokyo LDP assemblypersons blocking her reform efforts. There is also speculation regarding why the Tokyo branch of the LDP failed to endorse her candidacy for governor in the first place. Sexism appears to have been one of a number of factors in this story. Even after that, if they were willing to cooperate with her at some level in the Tokyo Assembly she may not have split off and her popularity could possibly have been a boon for the LDP rather than a threat to it.

There’s talk of Koike becoming Japan’s first female PM in future. Is this a realistic scenario?

The problems that Osaka’s Toru Hashimoto faced show the difficulties involved in taking a regional party to the national level. While Koike is a popular figure, talk of her gunning for the prime ministership seems premature. She would look hypocritical if she failed to carry out her four-year term as governor given her rhetoric of putting the people of Tokyo first. For Koike to become Prime Minister she would need to maintain her popularity, oversee a successful 2020 Olympics, and then either re-join the LDP or forge political alliances with other opposition parties.

Are there any lessons to be learnt from the elections in Tokyo for Australian politicians or observers?

The main takeaway that seems relevant to the Australian political experience is for political parties not to let intra-party disputes allow them lose sight of public opinion and the need for politicians to follow evidence based rather than ideological policymaking.

Ben Ascione is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. He is Japan and Korea editor at East Asia Forum and a research associate of the Japan Center for International Exchange in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter @benasci1

See more on Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First and Japanese politics at the East Asia Forum.

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