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Meet Yuriko Koike -- Tokyo governor, leader of new Party of Hope

In a challenge to Abe, ex-defense minister throws her hat in national politics

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike attends a news conference to announce the name of new political party at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Tokyo on Sept. 25. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

TOKYO -- She enthralled the public by rebelling against the ruling party and pulling off sweeping electoral victories. But Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike had been coy regarding the question on everybody's mind: Will she return to national politics?

The Japanese public finally got an answer on Monday as she announced she will lead a new national party named Kibo no To, or "Party of Hope," that will challenge Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a general election next month. 

"We need a reformist party in the truest sense," Koike said at a news conference on Monday, just hours ahead of Abe's official announcement the same day that he intends to dissolve the lower house at the beginning of the extraordinary Diet session starting Sept. 28.

Koike, 65, will retain her position as Tokyo governor while leading the party as it fields candidates nationwide. The campaign period gets underway on Oct. 10, with polling day set for Oct. 22.

"I will take candidacy from all over the country for newcomers with whom I have had various relations, as well as people with experience in the parliament with the will for reform," she said. "Our ideal is to proceed free of special interests."  

Koike is now seen widely as a serious threat to Abe after her Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) regional party swept to a resounding victory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2.

Here's how the first female governor of Tokyo -- an ex-defense minister, a former LDP member, and now a party leader -- rose to prominence.

Move ahead, don't dwell

Koike was raised by a politically minded father and a mother who insisted on her becoming independent through and through.

Her mother once told her she did not want her daughter to try to earn money using her good looks and instead demanded that Koike rely on "what you have inside."

Koike studied at Cairo University and became an Arabic interpreter upon returning to Japan. After a stint as a newscaster, she launched her political career by successfully running for the upper house on the Japan New Party ticket. Since then, her political career has spanned 25 years and five parties.

The Tokyo governor says her strength is her determination.

"Failure doesn't take your life," she wrote in her book. "My philosophy is, it's better to move ahead than to dwell on a failure by saying, 'I wish I had done that at the time.'" That philosophy was apparently at play when Koike ran in the Tokyo gubernatorial election in July 2016.

Frequent surprises

Shortly before the election, Koike complained about her career having grown stagnant. "I will be left with nothing much to do as long as the Abe administration continues," a person close to her recounted her as saying.

Since abruptly resigning as defense minister some 10 years ago during Abe's first crack at the prime minister's job, her relationship with him has remained distant. She supported Shigeru Ishiba in the LDP's presidential election of 2012.

But after backing the losing candidate, Koike rebelled against the LDP by running independently of the party in the Tokyo gubernatorial election.

"I feel like I'm jumping off a cliff," she told reporters ahead of the election, "but I want to take on this challenge."

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi praised Koike's decision at the time, saying, "she has guts." In the end, she won with 2.9 million votes.

Part of Koike's style can be characterized by her frequent surprise decisions.

Gov. Lecturer

Since being inaugurated as Tokyo governor, she has appointed as many as 14 advisers. But according to a senior metropolitan official, she usually has strong opinions.

"Advisers give her ideas, but decisions are ultimately hers," the official said. "She doesn't have close political advisers in the true sense of the word."

Koike does not tell anyone -- not even senior members of the Tomin First no Kai -- what she intends to do.

According to a source close to the governor, Koike likes to compartmentalize, having her aides work only in their respective fields, unaware of what is going on with other matters.

"Koike-san is the only one who sees the overall picture," the source said.

The difficulty involved

Masaru Wakasa, a lower house member and aide to Koike, had been drumming up support for the new party among Diet members who have left the Democratic Party. He was telling these lawmakers that the ensuing general election will represent a chance to consolidate opposition forces into a new party. 

Asked to describe Koike, a long-time secretary said she is a "type who sows seeds all over the place, then tries to nurture the ones that appear to be the most likely to grow." The secretary said this also holds true for Wakasa and the new party he was helping to form.

Hence, Koike now seems to believe the timing is right for her to play a role in national politics. Koike, the secretary had said, "would return to national politics if she sees that Mr. Wakasa's new party plan appears likely to bear fruit." 

The governor has the Tokyo assembly under her control and enjoys strong popular support. But Koike appears to have a loftier goal in mind.

"She always said ultimately she wants to become prime minister," an aide to Koike said. "I don't think she has changed her mind."

Tsubasa Suruga contributed to this story.


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