Originally published in The Hindu on September 2, 2017

Heralded as the new face of brand Tokyo and touted as a future Prime Minister, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is currently the brightest star in Japan’s political firmament. Her party’s thumping win over the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections in July has only burnished the 65-year-old politician’s already shiny credentials. Ms. Koike’s newly launched party, Tomin First no Kai or Tokyoites First, now holds a majority in the Japanese capital’s Assembly. With the general elections due next year, the million-Yen question on every analyst’s lips is whether she can go national.

Ms. Koike is a populist who first came to international attention when she was elected as Tokyo’s first woman Governor in July 2016, on a platform of anti-corruption, environmentalism and transparency in government. In the year that has passed, she has roasted the LDP old guard, forcing veteran politicians, hitherto used to unquestioned authority, to defend their decisions on a range of issues, including overspending on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Not an outsider

However, Ms. Koike is hardly a political outsider. She is a veteran of the LDP, having been a party member since 2002 and having served in various Cabinet posts, including as Environment Minister and Defence Minister. In the Tokyo Governor poll last year, she ran as an independent only after the LDP’s Tokyo chapter backed a rival candidate.

This closeness to the very establishment she rails against is Ms. Koike’s fundamental challenge. She shares the ideological bandwidth with the current Prime Minister and leader of the LDP, Shinzo Abe. Despite her popularity, leading newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun have begun to accuse Ms. Koike of being ‘all bark and no bite’. A recent Asahi editorial gave her an ‘F’ for her performance as Governor, citing her failure to be more transparent.

Jeff Kingston, Director of the Asian Studies programme at Tokyo’s Temple University, points out that much of Ms. Koike’s popularity stems from her adept manipulation of the media, a space that she understands well. The Tokyo Governor was a TV presenter before she entered politics in the early 1990s. Professor Kingston believes that we are at “peak Koike”, a high point in her political graph that she will probably struggle to maintain over an extended period of time. Ms. Koike’s best bet lies in focussing on women-friendly measures, such as increasing the choices for childcare and elderly care available. Although feminism as an ideology is surprisingly muted in Japan, women, in particular younger women, feel short-changed by a politics that is overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Women account for less than 10% of the 475 members of the lower house, placing Japan at 157th position out of 200 countries ranked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, below even Saudi Arabia and South Sudan. The number of Japanese women lawmakers in the lower house has barely changed since 1946, the first time Japanese women could run for office. And despite Mr. Abe’s touting of “womenomics”, a set of policies that aims, amongst other measures, to ensure that women hold at least a third of senior positions in government and business by 2020, only 3.5% of senior government posts are held by women at present.

If Ms. Koike can go on to shatter what she herself has referred to as Japan’s “iron plate” gender ceiling by winning a general election, it would be just the kind of shake-up that Japan’s sclerotic establishment has long been in need of.