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Tokyo's new governor, Yuriko Koike, promises openness

Yuriko Koike, Tokyo's first female governor, is shaking things up with promises to make the metropolitan government more open. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

TOKYO A little more than two months after taking office as Tokyo's first-ever female governor, Yuriko Koike is pushing ahead with reforms to the metropolitan government at breakneck speed.

Her two immediate predecessors both resigned in disgrace over misuse of public funds before their four-year terms ended. A string of financial scandals has left voters in the capital cynical, but they have found new hope in Koike's vow to "make major reforms in Tokyo."

The new governor has shown no qualms about putting large projects on hold, if they were decided opaquely. She doesn't seem interested in Japan's traditional approach to consensus-building. But it is Koike's direct political style that helps explain her popularity.

To take one example, the Tokyo government had planned to relocate the capital's aging fish market at Tsukiji to the Toyosu district about 4km to the southeast. Moving the 81-year-old fish market, one of the largest of its kind in the world, is a massive undertaking that is expected to cost around 580 billion yen ($5.62 billion).

But at end of August, roughly two months before the market's scheduled relocation in November, Koike announced a delay, citing lingering concerns over soil contamination at the Toyosu site. That upset wholesalers at Tsukiji and members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. When word got out that the previous administration had not fully carried out its pledge to remove and replace the contaminated soil, Koike's bold decision earned widespread praise.

YURIKO OF ARC Tokyo is considering a major review of plans for the 2020 Olympics, including canceling the construction of three venues and using existing facilities instead. Koike is keen to slash the cost of hosting the games, which may reach 3 trillion yen, and ease the burden on taxpayers.

When the Tokyo gubernatorial election was held in July, Koike vacated her lower house seat in the Diet, Japan's parliament, and ran as an independent without the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party's Tokyo chapter, to which she belonged. "It is as if I've already jumped off the cliff," she said. "In every way, I'm resolved to run."

Koike graduated from Cairo University and speaks fluent English and Arabic. After working as a TV news anchor, she entered politics in 1992, winning a seat in the upper house of Japan's parliament. She later served as environment minister and defense minister, and is well-versed in security issues. In recent years, however, Koike has not held ministerial or key party posts. Her decision to run for Tokyo governor hints at a desire to return to the political spotlight.

During the campaign, Koike cast herself as a heroine locked in a "one-person struggle" against a group of bullies. On the final day of campaigning she compared herself to Joan of Arc, saying, "I'm ready to go into the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office without fear of being burned at the stake, and make the government more open and transparent to citizens." So far, Koike has made good on her vow, following her landslide victory.

Although Koike enjoys wide support from residents, questions remain over how she will manage her thorny relationship with the metropolitan assembly, given that she used it as a foil during the campaign. Because Koike lacks a solid support base in the assembly, it is unclear whether she will be able to work with members to push through her agenda.

In the near future, Koike plans to launch a private academy called Kibo-no-jyuku ("classroom of hope") to teach the political arts to future leaders. Some LDP lawmakers have expressed worry that with an assembly election slated for next summer, the academy may become a political party, depending on trends in public opinion.

Koike's term as governor will end in 2020, just before the Tokyo Olympics open. Will she run for a second term, taking the opportunity to bask in Olympic glory, or seek a return to the Diet and perhaps a shot at becoming Japan's first female Prime Minister? How she performs over the next four years could determine her fate.

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