Will Yuriko Koike run in Japan polls?

Tokyo Governor insists she's not running, but there is talk she is gauging public opinion

Ms Yuriko Koike, with members of her Party of Hope, at a news conference to announce its campaign platform last week.
Ms Yuriko Koike, with members of her Party of Hope, at a news conference to announce its campaign platform last week. PHOTO: REUTERS

In a video loaded with symbolism, an immaculately styled woman, clad in green, walks purposefully past two old men in suits, their faces twitching in rage as they assail her for her defiance and gumption to break the mould.

She is later joined by four men and together they stride towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

The scene cuts to white and these words appear: "Farewell, fettered politics."

The woman's face is never shown but the video's target audience - Japanese voters - knows immediately she is Ms Yuriko Koike, 65.

In the past year, Ms Koike has positioned herself as an anti-establishment champion of reforms, railing against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) brand of old-school politics.

Even though she is cut from the same ideological cloth as the LDP, such is Ms Koike's cult of personality that her barely week-old Party Of Hope (Kibo No To) has already turned into a rallying force for a disjointed opposition baying for blood.

All eyes now are on how much power the nascent party can wrest from the LDP on Oct 22. An uptick in approval ratings had prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to call a a snap election to shore up his political legitimacy.

Ms Koike, now governor of Tokyo, eyes a chance to be the first female prime minister of Japan.

As she said in 2010: "My goal has always been to become prime minister. If you don't have far-reaching ambitions, being a politician is meaningless."

But she cannot be both prime minister and governor, a post she won just over a year ago.

While she has insisted repeatedly that she is not running for a seat in this election, the rumour mill is in overdrive that she is waiting in the wings and gauging public opinion.

"This election is about winning power," Ms Koike has said. "We're not contesting just to end up becoming an opposition party."

Already, various LDP politicians, including Finance Minister Taro Aso and political princeling Shinjiro Koizumi, son of popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, have dared her to run.

Communications minister Seiko Noda said she admired Ms Koike's courage "to read the tea leaves and jump off the cliff when the timing seems right".

Ms Koike is a former interpreter and news anchor who is fluent in Arabic and English. She graduated in sociology from the American University in Cairo, having studied overseas on her father's advice to "do what no one else has done".

She entered politics in 1992 and gained the moniker "migratory bird" for flitting from party to party, before landing in the LDP in 2002.

The elder Mr Koizumi was her political mentor and he named her environment minister in 2003. Her "Cool Biz" campaign to save energy during Japan's blazing summers continues today while the colour green, which she used to burnish her green credentials, has become her go-to campaign colour.

In 2007, during Mr Abe's first stint as prime minister, he gave her the defence portfolio, making her Japan's first female defence minister. But she quit after 54 days to take responsibility for a military leak that did not happen during her term.

She resigned as a lawmaker last year to run for governor, defying the LDP's orders and becoming one of the party's greatest critics.

In July, she led her local Tokyoites First party to a huge victory against the LDP in the Tokyo assembly elections, ousting more than half of the LDP's lawmakers.

Ms Koike has slammed her LDP-backed predecessor for the bureaucratic mess she inherited for the move of the Tsukiji fish market to a site built on contaminated soil, as well as a swelling Olympics budget.

University of Tokyo political scientist Yu Uchiyama called Ms Koike a "game changer", but added: "I dare say she is an opportunist too."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline Will Yuriko Koike run in Japan polls?. Subscribe