Yuriko Koike: Japan’s charismatic new PM-in-waiting

Yuriko Koike became governor of Tokyo last year, and her new party, Tomin First (Tokyo Citizens First), “stormed to victory” in the city’s assembly elections. She is already being tipped as Japan’s next prime minister.


Yuriko Koike has been tipped asJapan's next prime minister
(Image credit: Credit: Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo)

Since she became governor of Tokyo last summer, Yuriko Koike has dominated headlines in Japan, forging an image "as the scourge of an elderly, male, self-dealing political establishment", says Robin Harding in the Financial Times. She's been tipped to be Japan's next prime minister an ambition that may have come a step closer this week when Koike's new party, Tomin First (Tokyo Citizens First), "stormed to victory" in the city's assembly elections.

Her blend of "charisma, conservatism and civic populism" has certainly won her fans way beyond Tokyo. In May this year she was rated Japan's most popular leader, with approval ratings as high as 86%. Opponents have compared Koike's rise to that of Donald Trump: like him, she has tended to win by "railing against the establishment". But while theatrical, she denies being a "populist". "Change in order to preserve" is her motto.

The daughter of an oil-trading executive, Koike grew up in cosmopolitan circles, travelling frequently to the Middle East as a child and later studying Arabic and sociology at Cairo University. Returning to Japan, Koike worked as an interpreter before moving into TV news, making her name as a business presenter on TV Tokyo's World Business Satellite just as Japan's boom was turning to bust.

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She entered politics in 1992, shifting to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2002. Over the course of her political career, Koike, now 64, has been called "a migratory bird", a "flower", "Madame Conveyor Belt Sushi" and by a politician two decades her senior "a woman past her prime in thick make-up". None of this seems to faze her, says Motoko Rich in The New York Times. Her gung-ho attitude seems well suited to challenging Japan's old-boy network.

Rather than stand on any ideological platform, she has recently cemented her reputation by agitating on local issues stirring up controversies over the relocation of the famous Tsukiji fish market, for example, and the cost of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. To show her determination to keep a lid on costs for the games, she proposed that her own salary be halved from its 29m a year level. She was not, anyway, in this for the money, she told Bloomberg at the time. "I think I could have made much more if I'd stayed a newscaster."

Still, Koike who was named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people of 2017 is undeniably ambitious, says The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily. Already the leader of "a mega-metropolis", she has compared herself to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and vowed to undertake the "Great Reform of Tokyo". Now effectively the "de facto opposition to prime minister Shinzo Abe", Koike who lives modestly in a "granny flat" above a cousin's house is the most powerful woman in Japan. She is "coy" about her future ambitions, says Rich. "But in a country where female leaders are so rare [that] simply voting for them can be a revolutionary act," Koike looks poised to benefit.