For the Tokyo metropolitan government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections have the significance of a mid-term election. Due to the irregular way in which the current Tokyo Governor took office, the timing is off slightly compared to previous elections, which have generally fallen halfway through the Governor’s term. Nevertheless, when the 20th Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections take place on July 2, they will serve as a report card for the first year of Governor Yuriko Koike’s administration, and as an important predictor of the administration’s fate going forward. They could even provide an advance indicator for the outcomes of the next national government elections.
At a press conference to explain her administration’s 14-trillion yen budget, holding the two small animal toys, “Mary” and “Harry,” the budget’s “mascot characters” in her hand, Tokyo Governor, Yuriko Koike exuded her usual confidence. These props were apparently meant to signify the meri-hari, or “to get the priorities right, clearly weighing each priority against another” that would be brought to this year’s budget. This very resourceful ploy was a typical example of Koike’s style of appearing before the media on a daily basis, providing an almost constant drip-feed of topics for the media to cover. The concept is certainly an interesting way of gaining the public’s attention, but is it really appropriate for the top executive of such a massive organization? Posing problems is one thing, but will they be able to propose solutions to those problems? This is the core question that is being asked of the Koike administration.
In the nine months of the Koike administration, contrary to the exaggerated pledges of a “grand reform of Tokyo,” its achievements have actually been remarkably small in scale. It has dug up matters seen as the negative legacies of past administrations, such as the relocation of the Tsukiji market to Toyosu, and the review of Olympic venues, and pointed out, in nit-picking detail, the wasteful spending, the cover-ups, and the lack of transparency. It has even embarked on the hunt for the culprits, trying to root out who made the decisions, and when and where the decisions were made. Describing the Tokyo party chapter of the LDP as a “black box,” the doyens of the LDP in the Tokyo Assembly as the “dons of the Tokyo Assembly,” and past Ishihara administrations as “irresponsible,” Koike is creating enemies and portraying them as the old guards, reactionaries, and bad guys, while portraying her own administration as reformists, good guys, allies of justices, and putting the residents first. This is a political marketing ploy. So far, three people have been designated as the enemy—Olympic Organizing Committee Chair, Yoshiro Mori, former LDP Tokyo party chapter Secretary-General, Shigeru Uchida, and past Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara. Who will be next?
With the Tokyo Assembly elections fast approaching, the fringe factions within the Tokyo Assembly who hope to ride on the coat-tails of Koike’s popularity have been incited, going as far as setting up an Article 100 committee (a powerful committee formed under Article 100 of the Local Autonomy Act to investigate local government administrative matters) to search for the “culprits” in the land acquisition for the new Toyosu market. Twenty-four senior executives, including the President of Tokyo Gas, as well as former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and former Deputy Governor Takeo Hamauzu, have been called in to testify before the committee. The media reported on the hearings as they happened over the Internet, reaching a national audience. The strategy behind these moves was to paint previous TMG administrations as “an abode of demons,” a ploy that helped to create the “Koike Theater.”
Certainly, constitutional improvements must be made to the negative aspects inherent in such a massive bureaucracy as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, such as the information disclosures that are covered in black-out lines, and decision-making processes that tend to rely on “going with the flow.” In that respect, major qualitative administrative reforms should most definitely be put into motion.
However, is this manner of upholding one’s own popularity by continuing to highlight those kinds of issues in a media-first strategy really appropriate for the person at the helm of the massive organization of Tokyo, home to 13 million people? Should she not turn her attention to solving more structural problems, such as the excessive concentration of population and industry in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, an issue that remains critical even as Japan enters an era of depopulation? What should be done about this “aging Tokyo,” a metropolis of aging people and aging infrastructure?
Of course, in national politics as well, voters these days look no further than tomorrow or the next day, and are concerned only about the immediate future. After the money-politics scandals that have plagued the Inose and Masuzoe administrations over the past few years, public opinion has looked favorably on Koike’s style of “administration as detective,” cheering her on to keep it up. Under these circumstances, Koike’s approval rating remains high. Public opinion polls show that the Koike administration’s approval rating in the nine months since last summer has hovered around 75%. That means that two out of every three voters support Koike. The top two reasons for that support are “her stance and methods of reform are good” (33%) and “she is better than previous governors” (25%). On the other hand, only 6% responded that “she has good policies” (Asahi Shimbun, April 5, 2017). What this appears to mean is that the approval of the Koike administration represents approval of the grand reform of the TMG administration. That is, it is not support for the “grand reform of Tokyo,” which carries with it expectations of a policy shift towards solving Tokyo’s structural issues. This particular point is likely to be a key in how we look at the upcoming Tokyo Assembly elections.
The elections are still more than two months away, but voting intention surveys at this stage show that 31% of voters plan to vote for the LDP, 20% for Tomin Fāsuto no Kai (Tokyo Residents First, Koike’s newly-formed political group), 7% for the Japan Communist Party, 7% for independent candidates, 7% for The Democratic Party, 4% for Komeito, and 1% for Nippon Ishin no Kai (Asahi Shimbun poll, early April). If this trend continues, it is unlikely that Komeito will lose many of its 23 fiercely-guarded seats in the 127-seat Assembly, so if the Koike-led Tokyo Residents First can capture more than 40 seats, it would appear that Koike’s aim of gaining majority support in the Assembly would become possible.
However, politics is an entirely unpredictable game. If some kind of scandal or suspicious fact were to emerge, the situation could change drastically. The higher the approval rating, the harder the rebound, and the shift from approval to disapproval could be like falling off a cliff. How could we forget that the Masuzoe administration was in top form about this time last year? Just two months later, Masuzoe was under siege from the media over his exorbitant overseas official travel expenses, his use of government vehicles to travel to his vacation home on weekends, and the misuse of political funds for private purposes. Finally, on June 15, the last day of the Tokyo Assembly session, he resigned as governor. Whoever would have predicted such an outcome?
Of course, blind spots of that nature in the Koike administration are not yet visible. Nevertheless, Koike is a long-time member of the LDP, and she is still colored by the LDP mentality to some extent or other. Are there any money-politics scandals? Hasn’t anyone around her, including her family and relatives, behaved in a way that is unfitting for a politician? Are there any issues that have been obscured by the heady heatwave-like rush of the “Koike Theater?” Having seen the examples of previous governors, the author is reserving judgment.