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Where to for the Koike Metropolitan Government as Tokyo’s Politics Turns into a House of Cards

Nobuo Sasaki

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Political Science

Yuriko Koike, Riding the Trump Whirlwind

The expectations of many people in Japan that Hillary Clinton would become the United States’ first female President were proved wrong when Donald Trump won the election and became the President-elect. With so much information about the man swirling around, not only in Japan, the world Trump whirlwind shows no signs of abating.

And what of Japan’s political scene? This summer, there were two major elections in Japan. The first was the election for the House of Councilors on July 10. This election, in which half the seats are contested, is held every three years, but it went almost completely unnoticed and resulted in a runaway victory for the Liberal Democratic Party. In contrast, the election that received much more coverage was the one to elect a new governor of Tokyo, which took place three weeks later, on July 31. Influential forces within the ruling party, wanting a non-politician to take over the governor’s job, initially pushed for Shun Sakurai, a retired bureaucrat who most recently held the position of Vice-Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications (known in the media as “Sakurai Papa” because he is the father of pop music star, Sho Sakurai), but ultimately, it was former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, Hiroya Masuda, who declared his candidacy. The election was essentially a three-horse race, with the other two main candidates, journalist, Shuntaro Torigoe, and House of Representatives member, Yuriko Koike. What most interested me about the Tokyo governor’s election was whether Tokyo’s voters would choose one of the more “dramatic” candidates, who would be more likely to upset the establishment’s apple cart, or the safer, more practical candidate. Koike and Torigoe were seen as the former, and Masuda as the latter. However, after the protracted money and politics scandals surrounding disgraced outgoing governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, the voters quite decisively rejected the practical candidate and chose one of the dramatic candidates. Even more strikingly, they rejected the candidates who were backed by the established parties and chose Koike, who ran a lone-wolf campaign (although accurately speaking, Koike did seek the LDP’s endorsement but failed to receive it).

July 31, the day of the election, arrived. Voter turnout, at 59.73%, was 13 percentage points higher than the previous election, and Koike (64), who was also popular with swing voters, was elected in a landslide, securing about 2.91 million votes. This was over a million more votes than the 1.79 million votes cast for Masuda (64) and the 1.34 million votes that Torigoe (76) received (see a table below).

Past Tokyo governor elections had been characterized by three jinxes: (1) a past governor of another prefecture has never been elected; (2) there has never been a female governor of Tokyo; and (3) the victor has always been aged in the mid-sixties. On this occasion, the second jinx was finally broken.

Votes for Top Three Candidates in Tokyo Governor’s Election

Endorsing political parties
Elected 2,912,628 KOIKE, Yuriko Independent, first-time candidate
  1,793,453 MASUDA, Hiroya Independent, first-time candidate [LDP] [Komeito] [Party for Japanese Kokoro]
  1,346,103 TORIGOE, Shuntaro Independent, first-time candidate [Democratic Party] [Communist Party] [Social Democratic Party] [People’s Life Party]

Just four months into her term, the new Governor has stopped the relocation of the Tsukiji Markets to Toyosu, taken disciplinary action against 18 bureau heads, and announced major reviews of three Tokyo Olympic venues. Public opinion has been inundated with talk of Koike’s reforms of the Tokyo metropolitan government, and it has even been described as the “Koike Theater.”

However, the 100-day political “honeymoon” is now over, and the spotlight on the Koike administration has quite suddenly dimmed. However, given Koike’s reputation, one never knows what outrageous thing she will do next to get public opinion back on her side. In some quarters, there has even been speculation that she could turn into another Trump.

Her predecessor, Yoichi Masuzoe, was forced to resign just two years and four months after taking office. He presided over a period of turmoil in the metropolitan government for several months before his resignation, during which it seemed that a new scandal appeared in the media every day about his lavish spending on overseas travel, his misuse of public funds and a government car for private purposes, and the misappropriation of political funds, to the point where the Japanese word sekoi, which means “cheap,” to describe Masuzoe’s penny-pinching ways, became something of a buzzword for a time.

I think we can give Koike credit for the difference she has made to Tokyo politics by completely overhauling the metropolitan government and giving it a squeaky clean, transparent image.

The Koike Metropolitan Government’s 100-Day Honeymoon Is Over

Let’s take a quick look back at the first four months of the Koike metropolitan government. First, Governor Koike went on two trips to Brazil for the Rio Olympics, where on the final day, she was handed the Olympic flag as the next host of the Games. Next, she highlighted various issues to shake up the metropolitan government, and made efforts to bring greater transparency to the Tokyo government from the perspective of putting the citizens of Tokyo first. She declared publicly that there were no done deals in the administration, and she has already made bold moves such as postponing the relocation of the Tsukiji market to Toyosu and announcing a review of the spending on construction of Olympic facilities. She has succeeded in planting firmly in the minds of both the Tokyo metropolitan bureaucracy and the people of Tokyo the impression that she is a governor who is serious about reform. In that respect at least, the Koike administration is to be highly commended.

However, she has declared that the market relocation, which was originally scheduled on November 7, may not be resumed for another one or two years. She has used her own arbitrary judgement to put a stop to a massive project that has already cost 580 billion yen and consumed more than fifteen years of effort to date. The media applauded her audacity and portrayed it as evidence of the power of the Tokyo governor.

Moreover, the decision to stop the relocation has had unexpected ramifications, revealing the existence of a previously unexplained hollow space under the new market and the cover-up of the decision not to establish a soil base under the facility. This has exposed the scandal of bureaucrats making repeated false explanations to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and the public.

Now that this issue has settled down somewhat, what will happen from here on? The future seems unclear.

The review of the three Olympic venues has embroiled even the IOC. While the aim of the review is to reduce costs, Koike has been buzzing around, giving everyone the impression that the rowing and canoe-kayak events could be moved from Tokyo to the Naganuma Rowing Course in Miyagi Prefecture. Ultimately, however, things did not work out that way. Certainly, Koike’s efforts to bring greater transparency to the decision-making process is commendable. Nevertheless, as the governor of Tokyo, it would have made more sense for her not to jump at the whisperings of a handful of advisors, but to make use of the bureaucratic system and to save up and formulate strategies before taking action. In that respect, her handling of the situation seems to have been weak and her actions too hasty.

In any event, the 100-day honeymoon period, during which people are apt to be more indulgent of the new administration, is now over for the Koike government. No doubt there will be a variety of opinions expressed, but my frank opinion is that, while she has been excellent at highlighting problems, it remains to be seen whether she will be able to resolve those problems going forward. Will Koike’s administration be one with the ability to solve problems, and will the governor herself have the ability to implement her proposed reforms? The quality of the new governor and her administration will be put to the test. Simply put, in politics, the result is all that matters.

For True “Sweeping Reforms of Tokyo,” Three Areas Must Be Put to the Test

Governor Koike’s selling point has been her pledge of “sweeping reforms of Tokyo.” It is something that she has been promising since her election campaign. If what she says is true, could we then describe the way the current Tokyo administration is being run as a “sweeping reform of Tokyo”? In my opinion, it is only partly so. It may be a sweeping reform of the Tokyo metropolitan government, but it is not a sweeping reform of Tokyo. If she is going to keep talking in these terms, she will need to concern herself with three major areas.

The first of these areas is “the fundamental improvement of the metropolitan government.” This has already started. The governor immediately established a metropolitan government reform headquarters and appointed 14 special advisors. The headquarters has split up into a number of some study teams, from which recommendations have already started to emerge. This is the very first stop on Koike’s journey of reform. Just in the area of information disclosure alone, the highly secretive nature of the administration, symbolized by the excessive blacking-out of documents, has reached epidemic proportions, and a bureaucratic organization “of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats and for the bureaucrats” has become rampant. The situation in the metropolitan government could not be further removed from any notion of “the citizens of Tokyo first.”

Also part of this is the laxness and leniency when it comes to the use of taxpayers’ money, seen in the high costs of the administration’s programs. While I would not go so far as to call it bloated, at the very least, there is a distinct lack of effort in all areas to achieve the maximum effectiveness at minimal cost. Also, in the Tokyo metropolitan government, the governor is elected directly by the people, not by the Assembly, which puts the governor and the Assembly on an equal footing, with mutual checks and balances. The way in which the administration currently operates, with its cozy ties with the Assembly, fails to make the most of this advantage of this dual representation system. Another symptom of this problem is the budget allocation of some 20 billion yen for the political parties in the Metropolitan Assembly, something that no other prefectural government has. Is that acceptable? I would hope that these will be the issues that the governor will start with in her transparency and citizens-first reforms.

The second area that she will need to make inroads into is to accelerate the metropolitan government’s pursuit of its primary policies. At this stage, this point is being completely overlooked. The massive metropolis of Tokyo has entered a period of unprecedented change. It has plunged into absolute population decline, and it is now imperative to find solutions to the various problems being faced by an aging Tokyo. This area is concerned with the more intangible aspects of Tokyo life from the standpoint of priority on residents, and involves the strengthening of healthcare, welfare, nursing care, culture, education, and child-raising support. It also concerns the deterioration of tangible metropolitan infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water and sewerage facilities, subways, underground walkways, and public facilities, some of which were built fifty years ago. This will involve the systematic renewal of these facilities and will require massive amounts of time and effort. I cannot see any measures in the Koike government for taking powerful steps in this direction.

Of course, there is much that needs to be done in terms of the economic, financial, and urban diplomacy aspects of the global city of Tokyo. In any event, the Koike administration must devise steps to dispel the concerns of the citizens of Tokyo and the people of Japan about the way Tokyo is aging in both tangible and intangible ways. This is the primary work of the metropolitan government. No doubt, what the citizens of Tokyo most want to see is the creation of a powerful structure for the promotion of policy, through the establishment of a Tokyo Metropolitan Government Policy and Strategy Headquarters. Such a body should also include experts from outside the administration. The metropolitan government of Governor Koike will not be able to tread a course towards stability unless it makes real inroads into this area.

The third area to be tackled is to make progress on the decentralization of powers within the city. I am not talking about the decentralization of powers within the Tokyo metropolitan government. I am referring to reforms that will change the mechanisms of governance within the massive metropolis that is Tokyo. This means the aggressive pursuit of decentralization, in which the special wards and municipalities of Tokyo will be the primary governments. Particularly in need of attention is the relationship between the Tokyo metropolitan government and the 23 special wards, in which some nine million citizens, or more than two-thirds of Tokyo’s population, reside. The reform of the metropolis-ward structure is a task of the greatest urgency from the perspective of decentralization. Already, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has issued a policy to the effect that children’s welfare offices should be established in the wards, which are closer to the population.

However, for almost twenty years, the metropolitan government has put almost no effort into reforms of its relationships with the special wards. While some of the blame for this could be placed in the fact that successive governors, from Aoshima to Ishihara, Inose, and Masuzoe, came from non-political backgrounds such as authors and social commentators, over the years, the Tokyo metropolitan government has continued to carry its own workload and has only become more bloated. As a result, criticism of the relationship between the TMG and the wards is growing, with claims that the division of roles between the two is unclear, their administrative responsibilities towards residents are indistinct, and the metropolitan government’s administration of this massive metropolis as a wide-area local government is weak. Under the major premise that “near is best,” the local ward governments, which are closer to the residents, should be strengthened, and the metropolitan government should be refined into an administration that is more focused on policies of broader significance to the wider metropolis. Its transformation from a project bureaucracy to a policy bureaucracy along with the review of its policies, is the crux of the reform of the Tokyo metropolitan government.

The Fate of the Koike Administration. Will there be a New Koike Political Party?

The Koike administration is passionate about the first of these three areas mentioned above, but there is a strong sense that it has not yet made a start on the second and third areas. While preparations for the success of the 2020 Olympics are, of course, important, they are not the crux of the metropolitan government. The big question is whether the Koike administration will be able to make inroads into those two other areas for the sake of the citizens of Tokyo. This point lies at the heart of the question of whether or not the Koike administration will be able to last for the next four or eight years.

Allow me to touch on the much-talked-about issue of private political academies. Koike has launched her own private academy called the Kibō no Juku, or “School of Hope,” and has attracted almost 3,000 students. It certainly bears some resemblance to the Ishin Seikei Juku, the private political academy of former Osaka Mayor, Toru Hashimoto. Kibō no Juku is also similar to its precedent in that it has sought students from the general public to teach them Koike’s own political principles, and in its potential to form the basis of a new political party in the future.

As far as I can see, however, it has one critical difference.

No matter how you look at it, the Koike academy has strong overtones of being more of a fan club. As a political academy, it seems very insubstantial. I see it as a compound class of three groups – people who are interested in politics, people who want to become politicians, and people who are fans of Koike. It does not seem to have a core political philosophy, or a clear concept of what it wants to bring to politics and what it wants to do.

That might be fine if it were just an academy of learning, but if the intention is for it to lead to the formation of a new party, it does not have enough engine capacity. Financial and human resources will be needed. Koike is also bringing on lecturers based on her personal preferences, and, so far, they seem rather lackluster. Can we deny the sense that some of the students, with their political ambitions, may have gathered in the hope of becoming a mutual support society for upcoming elections, including the next Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections? It does not appear to be a gathering of public-minded spirits aiming for reform, such as the kind of major reforms of governing systems promoted by the Osaka Ishin no Kai, the regional political party that evolved from the Ishin Seikei Juku. Some political commentators are talking up the idea of a new, Koike-led political party, saying that it could put forward as many as 100 candidates in next summer’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections and that it could even become the eye in the storm in the next House of Representatives election. However, Tokyo residents and the general Japanese public have become quite cynical when it comes to new parties. Your Party, The Party for Future Generations, the Unity Party – how many of these new parties have come and gone over the past four years or so?

For the envisaged new party to have any kind of power, going forward, Yuriko Koike and Toru Hashimoto will need to join forces to create a “new, urban-style party,” the like of which Japan has never seen before. If they could achieve this, there may be some possibility of its becoming that eye in the storm. If Japan’s two core metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka were to be united, and Nagoya’s Takashi Kawamura and others joined them, such a party could absorb the dissatisfactions, distrust, and concerns held by urban voters and conduct urban-style politics in close contact with those urban voters, instead of the old LDP, which has been described as overly-representing rural communities. If that were to happen, it would certainly have an impact on politics in Japan.

Is the stage set for this kind of movement? As the new year of 2017 draws closer, I will be watching closely to see what actions the Koike metropolitan government takes, and the moves towards a new Koike-led party in the political arena.
Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Political Science
Professor Sasaki was born in 1948. He earned a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University and a doctor of law from Keio University. After serving in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, he became a professor at Seigakuin University in 1989. He then became a professor at Chuo University in 1994. He served as a visiting research fellow at the University of California (UCLA) in 2000, and has served as a professor in both the Graduate School of Economics and Faculty of Economics at Chuo University since 2001. He specializes in public administration and local self-government. He has taught at Keio University, Meiji University, Nihon University and other institutions, and served on the Japanese government’s 31st Local Government System Research Council. He concurrently serves as a member of the Science Council of Japan (in the field of political science), and as a special advisor to the Osaka City and Osaka Prefectural governments (on the Osaka Sub-Capital Concept). His recent publications include A Tokyo Metropolitan Government Primer – Considering the Tokyo Metropolitan Administration [Tocho Dokuhon – Tosei wo Kangaeru] (Mynavi Shinsho, published in December), Counterattack of the Local Assembly Members [Chihō Giin no Gyakushū] (Kodansha Shinsho), Regional Revitalization in an Era of Depopulation [Jinkō Genshō Jidai no Chihō Sōsei Ron] (PHP), The New Shape of Japan [Aratana “Nihon no Katachi”] (Kadokawa SSC Shinsho), and The Governor of Tokyo: Power and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government [Tochiji – Kenryoku to Tosei] (Chuko Shinsho). He has received the NHK Local Broadcast Cultural Award and the Japan Society for Urbanology Prize. He frequently appears on NHK, TBS, TV Asahi, Fuji TV, and Nihon TV, and provides commentary for several daily newspapers. He also gives frequent lectures throughout Japan.