Tokyo's Arabic-speaking governor could someday run Japan

Yuriko Koike is a multilingual woman with a global outlook – a rare breed in Japan's insular, patriarchal politics

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike speaks during a media interview in Tokyo on July 5, 2020. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike declared victory in the July 5 vote to elect the leader of one of the world's most populous cities and immediately vowed to step up the fight against a recent coronavirus resurgence. - Japan OUT
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Ever since Hillary Clinton twice missed out on becoming US president, in 2008 and 2016, many Americans believe it is a matter of time before someone comes along and breaks the proverbial glass ceiling. In Japan on the other hand, the glass ceiling is more like an “iron plate” – and therefore harder to dislodge – in the words of Yuriko Koike. As Tokyo’s first-ever female governor, she should know.

On Sunday, Ms Koike won re-election to secure a second four-year term as governor of Tokyo. It is an important position. Japan’s capital is the world’s largest city, with a gross domestic product worth $1.6 trillion; if Tokyo were a country, it would have the world’s 13th-largest economy.

As Japan continues to fight coronavirus, the weight of Ms Koike's position gives her several strings to pull – particularly purse strings. If she plays her cards right and fortune smiles upon her, she has the political acumen and experience needed to one day become Japan’s first ever female prime minister.

Ms Koike's biggest hurdle is her gender. For all of Japan’s achievements – and there are many – women’s representation in the upper echelons of society is woefully inadequate. As recently as 2017, Japan ranked 114th in a World Economic Forum gender-gap list. According to the Women in Parliament in 2018 report published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union last year, Japan ranked 165th out of 193 countries in terms of political representation by women. Only 10.2 per cent of House of Representatives lawmakers are female.

Iron plate indeed.

Yet Ms Koike’s win could not have come at a better time, for an important reason: Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and the reigning incumbent, is polling at less than 40 per cent for his handling of the pandemic. If his numbers continue to slide, she could emerge as his biggest challenger. But therein lies the rub.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike (L) bow to greet each other during a meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, on July 6, 2020. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike declared victory on July 5, 2020 in the vote to elect the leader of one of the world's most populous cities and immediately vowed to step up the fight against a recent coronavirus resurgence. - Japan OUT

Ms Koike is two years older than Mr Abe, so they belong to the same generation of politicians. With respect to policy positions and political ideology, she really is virtually identical to the Prime Minister. Once cabinet colleagues and fellow members of the Liberal Democratic Party, which Mr Abe currently helms, they are both conservative nationalists. They are proponents for revising school syllabi that inculcate patriotism in the minds of children. Nippon Kaigi, a powerful right-wing organisation, could loosely be described as their ideological fountainhead.

Ms Koike is two years older than Mr Abe, so they belong to the same generation of politicians, both conservative nationalists

Most importantly, they both share many a nationalist’s dream of building a more assertive Japan that depends less, or not at all, on the US for its regional security. To make this happen, they seek to revise the country’s pacifist constitution which, among other things, forbids it to go to war with another nation unless attacked first. It is a particularly polarising issue for the Japanese public, so it could be to Mr Abe’s advantage that he and his possible challenger are on the same page.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JUNE 30: People wearing face masks shelter from the rain under umbrellas as they walk along a street on June 30, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo confirmed 54 new Covid-19 coronavirus infections today, the fifth consecutive day with more than 50 cases. Yokohama also recorded its highest daily figure since April 23rd. Nevertheless, Tokyos Governor, Yuriko Koike, stated recently that the increase does not indicate the arrival of a second wave. Japan has so far recorded 18,477 infections, 972 deaths and 16,392 recoveries from the virus. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Mr Abe's vision of a "more assertive Japan" also involves disseminating his country’s soft power to all parts of the globe and expanding its reach. He is already doing that, for instance, in the Arab world, where his government has forged key partnerships with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Ms Koike is uniquely capable of deepening these ties, given her experience living and studying in Egypt in the 1970s; she speaks fluent Arabic and previously worked as an interpreter. Although it’s hard to say how it might inform her other policies, Ms Koike is a rare breed of Japanese politician in that she is an internationalist who speaks multiple languages.

So on substantive issues, there is little to separate the two politicians. The only way Ms Koike stands out is presentation. Amazingly, she has successfully managed to bill herself "the anti-Abe".

Seen as more charismatic than Mr Abe, Ms Koike has over a nearly two-decade-long political career gained a reputation as someone who knows to feed the beast that is the media. A former news anchor, she has communicated effectively with the press and the public.

This skill has come in handy during her Covid-19 briefings and stood in contrast to the Prime Minister’s struggles to deliver a clear message to the public. Like other world leaders, Mr Abe has come across as unclear over whether to prioritise public health over economic well-being.

Meanwhile, Ms Koike has shown empathy for the residents of Tokyo but also decisiveness in the face of a crisis. That the city did not see the numbers of infections and deaths climb the way they did in New York – given their comparable populations – is a credit to Ms Koike’s insistence that Mr Abe enforce a lockdown in April. People are also likely to remember her simple messages, including to avoid the “three Cs”: closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.

The coronavirus will surely shape the legacy of many leaders around the world. At the national level, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-wen and Mette Frederiksen – all women – have reserved and deserved more praise than their male counterparts. At more local levels of government, too, many female leaders have thrived, and Ms Koike is notable among them.

Her populist streak makes her a disliked figure among political insiders. Like Boris Johnson before he became British Prime Minister, Ms Koike has positioned herself as an outsider routinely attacking the establishment. “She’s so oriented to her ambitions,” Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University, has said. “She’s such a populist and an opportunist.”

This might explain a smear campaign by local politicians in trying to “expose” alleged untruths uttered by Ms Koike. A kerfuffle over her academic records forced the Cairo University in Egypt to issue a statement confirming that she had indeed graduated in sociology in 1976.

A voter wearing a protective face mask watches candidate posters, including current governor Yuriko Koike, for the Tokyo Governor election in front of a voting station amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan July 5, 2020.  REUTERS/Issei Kato

Ms Nakabayashi, though, says her popularity remains her biggest strength: “What Tokyo voters think is that she’s doing pretty well regarding Covid-19.”

She is right. Ms Koike received  3.66 million votes, topping the 2.91m votes she garnered in 2016. If she fulfils her campaign promise to host the Olympics in 2021 – postponed by a year due to the outbreak – without major hiccups, it would be another arrow to have in her quiver should she run for the highest office.

Since December 2012, Mr Abe has remained in power as there were few alternatives. That could change if the Japanese public decides that Ms Koike would mark a refreshing change. Given her gender and background, the change might be more refreshing than most of her colleagues in government may be willing to admit.

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil is an assistant comment editor at The National