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What Will Become of Koike’s Tokyo Government Now That the Lower House Elections Are Over?


Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Public administration, Theories of local governance

For better or for worse, someone has been stirring up all kinds of drama in Japanese politics for more than a year now—and that person is none other than Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike. In this piece, I’d like to track her movements through the gubernatorial election, the Tokyo Assembly elections, and the Lower House elections.

How long can we tolerate an insatiable power-monger?

First up: the Tokyo metropolitan government. In less than five years, three metro governors had stepped down before the end of their terms. Hoping to break the cycle, 2.91 million voters put Yuriko Koike in office in last year’s gubernatorial election on July 31. During the Tokyo Assembly elections held on July 2 of this year, her own regional political group Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) claimed a sweeping victory, securing 55 seats. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took a huge hit, putting their members in just 23 seats. Koike’s opposition strategy (which included denouncing the “Don of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly” Shigeru Uchida and calling the Tokyo government a den of corruption) won her two elections. The moment her group triumphed in the Tokyo Assembly elections was the moment Yuriko Koike’s self-directed “Koike Theater” (Tokyo government edition) reached fever pitch. My opinion piece on August 31 declared that the Tokyo government had now lost its number-one enemy, and that Koike’s biggest opponent had become monsters of her own making. I declared it curtains for the Koike Theater.

But the curtains went up again, this time for a second act. Koike was making a move for the national government. With Prime Minister Abe’s sudden dissolution of the House of Representatives and the resulting scramble to prepare for the October 22 general elections, Koike jumped at the opportunity to form a new national party called Kibo no To (Party of Hope). All by herself. Up went the curtains on the Koike Theater, national government edition. The media and everyone else was thrown into an uproar. “The star of hope has appeared!” they cried. One newspaper even went so far as to herald the coming of Japan’s first female prime minister. Politicians were highly responsive to the move as well, with well over a hundred DP Diet members (including former Diet members), in anticipation of their defeat in their upcoming elections, rushing to jump on the bandwagon. There was some discussion of exclusion, among other things, but after the endless rallying cries about going for a majority (233) win in this election, the Kibo no To ended up fielding 235 candidates.

Koike, head of the party, was suddenly on every television channel. She was beaming as if she were on top of the world—and one step away from the prime minister’s seat. But the peak was short-lived; Act II was destined to be a quick one.

Things started to go sideways once the Lower House elections began. On the day of the election, to say nothing of a majority of seats, the people of Japan tuned away from Kibo no To—and suffered a crushing defeat that secured them just 50 wins. There was supposed to be a great government overthrow, yet the revolution was nowhere in sight. In just one month, grand hopes were dashed and replaced with despair. Act II of the Koike Theater was over as fast as it had begun, and the theater has since become a mere shadow of its former self. Today, it’s nothing more than an endless parade of finger-pointing and witch-hunts as the party tries to figure out where things went wrong.

Now the Kibo no To, which once sought to swallow the power of the Democratic Party whole, is reaping the chaotic consequences of its actions. The primary culprit is surely Koike herself. The DP politicians, who have offered nothing but empty positions, share the blame—but for Koike to move to abandon the Tokyo government after a year spent accomplishing nothing while only raising all kinds of problems and then going around declaring herself a political hero capable of reforming Japan was by far the more serious offense. There were other major offenders as well—namely, the DP Diet members who failed to see through the charade and rallied around her, and the media and commentators who cheered her on like a superstar. The perils of public opinion also played a role. This was a month-long void in Japanese politics.

So there you have it: Yuriko Koike. People expected her to stoically pull herself back after the shocking loss, but it never happened. While she eloquently made her apologies and vowed to learn from her mistakes, it turned out to be nothing more than hollow rhetoric. She would not resign as Tokyo governor, she said, and would of course continue as the head of the Kibo no To. Given all that she’s done, how long will the citizens of Tokyo tolerate this insatiable power-monger who clings so tightly to positions of authority?

Psst… Governor Koike… your tailwind has long since turned against you!

The tailwind from the July Tokyo Assembly election completely died out with the recent Lower House election, and is now blasting Yuriko Koike in the form of a frigid headwind. The political foundations of the Tokyo metropolitan government, once thought to be rock-solid, are now being exposed as brittle and weak. One election analyst remarked, “The Tomin First no Kai was victorious in the Tokyo Assembly election only because they were backed by the Komeito. The LDP collapsed after being estranged by votes from the Komeito[1].” Had the former LDP-Komeito alliance held, Tomin First never would have been able to win. The fact that the Kibo no To was so overestimated in the recent general election was, the same analyst explains, “mostly the fault of the media. As soon as the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) got involved in the national government, the media cooled its heels. But they weren’t able to put the Koike fever going on in their home city in perspective. They mistook what was happening in Tokyo for what was happening nationwide.” This is an insightful analysis, one that quite possibly gets to the truth of the matter.

In any event, the Koike’s Tokyo administration, once propelled by media backing and favorable public opinion, has now fallen hard. The governor may be skilled at pointing out problems, but people are coming to realize that she’s not the kind of person who can actually get them under control.

The question is whether Koike herself realizes this situation. She’s been handed the keys to a city that’s home to 13 million souls, a budget on par with Sweden’s at 14 trillion yen, and Japan’s largest bureaucratic machine employing 170,000 civil servants. Some are beginning to call for a recall election and there are experts calling her a lame-duck governor, but Koike insists that she’s going to continue to push forward with the Tokyo government. She makes no secret of her ambitions to use the gubernatorial position as a stepping stone to the prime minister’s office, so despite the fact that she was routed on a national stage and that the curtain has fallen on her second act, her declaration can only mean that she intends to continue wearing two hats: political party leader on one hand, and Tokyo governor on the other.

We don’t know what’s in Koike’s heart or what she’s really made of, but suffice it to say that what she’s doing is beyond the bounds of common sense. Can she really get the support of the Tokyo people, capital bureaucrats, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, and the citizens of the entire nation? Can she even rely on the media to back her? Make no mistake—Koike was put in office to end the chaos in the Tokyo government after a string of governors left before the end of their terms. But isn’t her high-handed approach actually amplifying the disorder instead? Is that who the Governor of Tokyo is? Does the position afford someone the time to get involved in all of this drama? I can’t be the only one who feels angry and disappointed to see Yuriko Koike neglecting her gubernatorial duties and clutching the seat of power for her own gain.

What was this snap election, anyway? What purpose did it serve?

At 53.68%, the most recent Lower House election had the lowest turnout of all but one other election in Japan’s postwar era. Did everything end up OK? The LDP held onto 284 seats—the same number it had before the election was announced. The ruling LDP-Komeito alliance finished with more than two-thirds of the seats at 310, while the opposition parties suffered heavy defeat. At the special Diet session called on November 1, Shinzo Abe was named Prime Minister as if nothing had ever happened. Does the majority of Japan really still want Prime Minister Abe at the helm?
Meanwhile, the disbanding of the number-one opposition party—the Democratic Party—after its crushing defeat was pure slapstick comedy. What did you think as the predominance of the LDP has been further strengthened? Is Japan governed by political parties? Isn’t your political affiliation just a label you use to get elected? Put simply, the current politics is only nominally democracy; actually it’s populism. To use a stronger word, it’s mob rule. We live in an age where elections are greatly swayed by media reports, and there are plenty of voters who are tossed around by the commercially-driven media like playthings. How can the journalists who threw the spotlight on the Kibo no To and treated Yuriko Koike like a superstar, calling the election as an opportunity to choose the next administration, defend themselves now?

In any case, I wonder whether there was some justice in the recent dissolution. The results didn’t make it clear what the Japanese voters were asked to make their decisions for. The only thing that really stands out is that Abe disbanded the Lower House for his own gain in order to prolong the life of his administration. But there is one more thing. Although the dissolution did not have a major effect on the LDP-Komeito alliance, it simultaneously had the feel of a “land rezoning project” for the Democratic Party. Ever since the DP started to leave government seats five years ago, merging with minor political parties and rebranding itself from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to the Democratic Party (DP), it has shuffled through a revolving door of party leaders (Okada, Renho, Maehara)—meanwhile presenting no clear policy to speak of. The territory held by this indistinct Democratic Party ended up completely rezoned into four different parties: the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Kibo no To (DP), independents (CDP), and the DP (House of Councilors)

Things are a little simpler now—which may be a plus—but these developments also further concentrate Abe’s power. Is there still hope for Japanese politics? Right now, I’m not so sure.

What will become of the Tokyo government? Will Governor Koike make a comeback?

Given the current situation, what will become of the Tokyo government? Here’s my take on the situation. Koike’s new party (the Tomin First no Kai) scored a big win during the Tokyo Assembly elections in July by securing 55 out of 127 seats. Meanwhile the Kibo no To, the sister party to Tomin First that popped up in the Lower House election, suffered a crushing defeat. Especially, Koike won just one of the 25 single-seat electoral districts within the Tokyo metro area (her home turf), and the Kibo no To got no more than four seats including those won through the proportional representation system. There’s no way that these results in the capital won’t affect the metropolitan government.

The prestige of the Tokyo governor

Let’s start by taking a look at the position Yuriko Koike holds as governor of Tokyo. The prevailing expectation (expressed by Yoshihiro Katayama, former governor of Tottori Prefecture) is that Koike’s cabinet will become a lame-duck administration[2]. Make no mistake—Koike’s neglect of her gubernatorial duties and her loss in the national elections will have a major impact. Even the Tokyo bureaucrats are giving her the cold shoulder. Even before the election, Koike’s first-year approval ratings within the government were at 46.6%. Yoichi Masuzoe was at 63.6% after his first year, while Shintaro Ishihara was at 71.1%[3]. Koike’s ratings were dismal even compared with her predecessors, but her foray into national politics has completely eroded whatever bureaucratic confidence she had left. Like a company, in the metro government subordinates react with indifference to whatever the CEO who they don’t trust says or does. The organization can only function if the leadership of the person in charge dovetails with follow-up actions taken by those under them. It seems to me that Koike has already become an empty leader—all bark and no bite.

Wearing two hats

Koike made a pledge to dedicate herself to her gubernatorial duties following the Tokyo Assembly election, but she declared that she would singlehandedly launch a national political party with herself at the head in the same breath. She was soon running around insisting that the coming election was to choose the next administration. After her total failure to achieve this, she said she had learned her lesson and would rededicate herself to Tokyo, but showed no intention of stepping down as head of the party. Essentially, Yuriko Koike is still wearing two hats.
Shinjiro Koizumi (Chief Deputy Secretary General of the LDP) gave Koike a bit of friendly advice when he told her during the election that it would be a little hard to walk with a sneaker on one foot and a high heel on the other, but she simply laughed it off as meaningless banter. She also refused to listen to the citizens of Tokyo who insisted she choose whether to enter the Lower House election or dedicate herself to her work as Tokyo governor. Even after the loss, she took the attitude that she was heavily involved in key decision-making tasks in her role as head of the national party. Koike made no effort to respond to former governor of Tottori, Katayama when he said she needed to stop flirting with national politics, roll up her sleeves, and get to work on her assigned gubernatorial tasks.

Relationship with the national government

Here’s my take on this. Tokyo is already anxious about the looming preparations for the 2020 Olympic Games. Koike was coming off a string of electoral wins, but with her recent routing, she needs to radically change the relationship between the capital and the national government from what it was prior to the election. I don’t think Abe administration will do anything rash just because she ran against it during the election. Still, Koike once spoke to the national government from a position of great popularity with the Tokyo people. Now that she’s lost their support, the state has no fear of her at all. The future of Olympic preparations continues to look rocky, and given the way things are, I don’t see the national government stepping in to save Koike any time soon.

Relationship with the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly

So what about Koike’s relationship to the Tokyo Assembly? She claimed that she would bring sweeping reforms in Tokyo by winning in the assembly. She certainly achieved that, but those wins hardly have any significance on their own. All that means is that she’s collected more friends to strengthen her influence. That’s all well and good, but what about changing the old assembly into something new? Did she form a Bureau of Legislation where her assembly members are working away? Hardly. Her Tomin First movement has been called a dictatorship. Two influential assembly members have already left the party. “It’s possible that Koike’s power over Tomin First, which is linked to the Kibo no To, is weakening, and I imagine that the dissolution process is already underway,” former governor of Tottori, Katayama explained. “We’ve heard that the former Democratic Party members in particular are wavering.”
The situation of the biggest influence within Tomin First is very similar to the situation where more than 90% of the Kibo no To has come into it from the Democratic Party. Because the majority of its members were DP Assembly members, were they to leave as a group, all that would be left of Tomin First would be Koike’s freshmen disciples and a handful of former LDP members. And there’s a good chance that the LDP members will leave the party as well given the recent recovery. When all the dominos fall, Tomin First will be reduced to nothing more than a small, minor party.
The Tokyo Assembly Komeito (with its 23 seats) teamed up with the Tomin First when Koike’s party was on top, but if Komeito tries to form the same LDP-Komeito alliance that it has at the national government level, Tomin First will no longer be part of the coalition in power, and Koike’s power will return to nothing.

Future problems for Koike’s Tokyo government —can she resolve them?

Let’s say that Koike gives up her coveted position of party leader and dedicates herself to governing Tokyo. Would she be able to make good forward progress? My guess is that it would be very difficult, for the following five reasons.

The first question is whether the Koike would be able to completely change the way of managing the Tokyo government in the past. Can she singlehandedly change the “one-man-show” style politics that push ahead without consulting the assembly, staff members, or even the citizens of the city?

The second question is whether she can find a practical solution that achieves compromise on the Tsukiji Market relocation and redevelopment issue. The move being dragged out more than two years is in itself costing a tremendous amount of time and money already. The policy of achieving both the move and redevelopment that was determined just before the Tokyo Assembly election using Koike’s own “artificial intelligence” would be impossible from a profitability standpoint. The governor has completely lost the confidence of the vendors that use the market as well.

The third issue is the serious delay in preparations for the 2020 Olympics. Are things really going to work out? The construction of Loop Line No. 2 (the arterial road through the old Tsukiji market site), and building a parking lot with space for more than 3,000 buses cannot even begin without completely relocating the market. The move itself is already getting repeatedly pushed back, and is now scheduled for after October of next year. In addition, building city infrastructure that is Olympic-ready has been generally delayed.

The fourth concern is whether Koike will be able to fulfill the essential duties of a Tokyo governor; namely, resolving municipal issues and implementing municipal policy. The residents of Tokyo never seemed to have high expectations that Koike would resolve policy issues. The clock is ticking, however. Policy issues that directly affect people’s lives—things like getting children off school waiting lists and other measures to address declining birthrates, waiting lists for elderly care, deteriorating infrastructure and other problems associated with the aging capital, and management measures for a near-field earthquake and other disasters—all of these problems are getting worse. Koike needs to secure the funding she needs and start resolving them one after another.

The fifth problem is one that extends far beyond the bounds of the metropolitan area. How is Tokyo going to respond to criticisms about the overconcentration of Japan’s population in the capital? If Tokyo continues with its classic self-satisfied, exceptionalist approach, it can’t count on other local governments even to cooperate with plans like the widespread development of elder care facilities across the metro area. Think carefully about it. This enormous city is a house of cards—it cannot supply water, energy, or food for itself—and totally dependent on other areas for its survival. It achieves nothing solely through its own efforts. Tokyo wouldn’t last a day without support from others—not just the neighboring prefectures, but the whole of Japan, Asia, and the world. As manager in charge of this megacity, can Koike address these issues with administrative policies that aren’t blinded by Tokyo’s tremendous ego?

We no longer have time to keep disputing about things like the Tsukiji Market move and Olympic readjustments. The people of Tokyo just want solutions. The Koike administration has got to shift from one that raises problems to one that resolves them. What does this mean? The empty chants about the “Tokyo revolution” will soon fizzle out. This is a sink-or-swim moment for the Koike administration. Is the governor even aware of how dire things have gotten? Time is running out.

My advice: Stop trying to wear two hats

Here’s a question for Yuriko Koike. Given how dire the situation of the Koike administration is, do you still want to continue as party leader? It is unclear what you want to change at the national government level, and for what benefit for the Tokyo government you still keep one foot in national politics. There is no way you can effectively govern the capital while keeping one hand in the national pot as head of a small opposition party. No one person has the energy for that. You need to dedicate yourself completely to your duties as governor. Even that won’t be an easy task right now. The governorship is being faced with unprecedented challenges—among them an aging city and preparations for the 2020 Olympics. It’s a job that requires three people rather than just one[4]. My advice to her is below.

Governor Koike! You need to start focusing on your duties as governor! The governor of Tokyo is basically a prime minister. If you throw yourself into your duties, you can serve three terms over twelve years! Far longer than a national prime minister headed for the political chopping block after a year or two.”

  1. Oguma, Eiji. “The Reason Why Kibo Was a Fantasy” [Kibo ga genso datta wake], Asahi Shimbun-Press Commentary (October 26, 2017).
  2. Excerpt from Yoshihiro Katayama’s comments in “The Shockwave to the Tokyo Government—How Far Will It Go?” [Tosei he yoha—Doko made], Nihon Keizai Shimbun—Metro Edition (October 24, 2017).
  3. “Employees Rate Governor Koike’s First Year” [Koike-chiji no ichinen—Shokuin ga saiten], The Tosei Shimpo (August 1, 2017).
  4. Taken from my comments in “The Shockwave of the Tokyo government—How Far Will It Go? [Tosei he yoha—Doko made]” Nihon Keizai Shimbun—Metro Edition (October 24, 2017).
Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Public administration, Theories of local governance

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. Sasaki worked for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for sixteen years before being hired on as a professor at Seigakuin University in 1989, and a professor at Chuo University in 1994. He served as a visiting researcher at the University of California (UCLA) in 2000, and has served as a professor in both the Graduate School of Economics and the Faculty of Economics at Chuo University since 2001. He specializes in the areas of public administration, local self-government, and urban government administration. He has 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.
His publications include Aging Tokyo [Oiru Tokyo] (Kadokawa Shinsho, March 2017), Tokyo’s Big Problem [Tokyo no Daimondai] (MyNavi Shinsho, December 2016), The Governor of Tokyo: Power and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government [Tochiji—Kenryoku to Tosei] (Chuko Shinsho, January 2017), Tokyo Metropolitan Government [Tokyo tosei] (February 2003), The Tokyo Government Office: A Second Administration [Tochō—Mou Hitotsu no Seifu] (February 1991), and more. His The United States of Japan [Nippon Gasshūkoku] is scheduled to be published in March of next year. Professor Sasaki has received the NHK Local Broadcast Cultural Award and the Japan Society for Urbanology Prize. He is also frequently invited to speak on television and radio programs, provide press commentary, and give local lectures.