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Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, right, has questioned P Rime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to send the nation to the polls in the midst of escalating tensions with North Korea.

Tokyo governor's newfound national ambitions draw fire

Koike sees no conflict running capital while leading national party, but even allies express doubts

TOKYO -- Sparks are flying between Japan's ruling coalition and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike just days after the popular leader launched her own national political party, kicking off what looks to be a rancorous battle for an October parliamentary election.

"It isn't easy wearing two hats," Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Komeito, told reporters Tuesday. "I would like to see [Koike] remain committed to her work as governor."

Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party's partner in Japan's ruling coalition, had allied with Koike's local party in July's Tokyo metropolitan election. But now that the former-cabinet-minister-turned-governor has returned to the national stage with the newly founded Kibo no To, or "Party of Hope," all bets are off.

"It's extremely disappointing to hear reports that she's using metropolitan politics as a mere stepping stone with other ends in mind," said Takahiko Tanimura, Komeito's chief in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.

"You can't feel her love for Tokyo," said Ichiro Akita, the Tokyo LDP's secretary-general. "I can't quite shake the concern that the governor's thoughts might be elsewhere at this moment."


Koike argues that her involvement in national politics would work to Tokyo's advantage. "A major chance for reform has come -- one I believe could benefit the capital and its people," the governor said Tuesday night. But as her opponents point out, balancing national and local priorities will not be easy. If Koike intends to serve out her full term as governor, she will need to put forward someone else who could stand as prime minister should her party end up in a position to form a government. But for many potential Hope voters, having her at the helm is the main draw.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi

Koike said in a television interview Monday that Yamaguchi would make a good choice for prime minister. This did not go over well with some in the LDP. "Nominating a prime minister is an extremely serious matter," a person linked to the party wrote in a Facebook post. "It's not something to be done jokingly."

It remains unclear how well Koike could balance the duties of leading a party in parliament with her demanding job as governor -- a point of uncertainty ripe for the LDP officials to seize on.

Bad timing?

Koike is hardly a passive victim in this escalating war of words. The governor on Monday called Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to call a snap election "questionable" at a time when tensions with North Korea are intensifying. "What does that mean for the country's ability to manage a crisis?" she asked.

Some in the ruling bloc have asked the same, leaving the Abe government scrambling to assure them and the public that everything is under control. "The government isn't dissolving," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday. "We're ready to respond 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he said, adding that he and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera would stay in Tokyo during the campaign to deal with the North Korean situation.

Abe, however, plans hold rallies across the country. While a government source assured that Japan "has a pretty good handle on what North Korea is doing," having the prime minister away from the capital could complicate a rapid response to further provocations.

"Simply exchanging barbs is no way to engender hope," Abe said in a television interview Tuesday evening. "I hope this election will see healthy competition that inspires hope for the future," he said, mindful that Koike's party could prove a useful partner down the line.


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