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Top>Opinion>Curtains Fall on “Koike Theater”: Government in the Capital Following the Tokyo Assembly Elections


Curtains Fall on “Koike Theater”: Government in the Capital Following the Tokyo Assembly Elections

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Public administration, Theories of local governance

Read in Japanese

“I’m not MacArthur”?

Tokyo held its gubernatorial elections last summer. While the top three candidates were duking it out, Yuriko Koike pulled ahead of the pack without the endorsement of a political party, billing herself as “a lone wolf candidate.” At sharp odds with what she positioned as the old guard—the Tokyo chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and “don of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly” Shigeru Uchida—Koike made full use of political marketing tactics to secure her victory, deftly winning over the media by billing herself as a reformer and lover of justice.

Koike made three campaign promises upon announcing her bid for the governorship: dissolving the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly as soon as it convenes, hunting down corruption, and exposing the scandals of her predecessor, Yoichi Masuzoe. A year later, has she made good on those vows?

A closer look reveals that there hasn’t even been an investigative committee established to look into the issues surrounding Masuzoe - a situation which can only feel like a broken campaign promise. The dissolution of the assembly is no different. That said, when it comes to hunting down corruption, Koike has been repeatedly exposing and denouncing the past municipal administration. The detective-like Yuriko Koike has whipped up public opinion with her reformist approach, and enjoyed an approval rating of nearly 70%. The Tokyo metropolitan government has since stolen the spotlight from the national government, with the media running countless stories on it in the national news. Without a doubt, government in the capital has become the “Koike Theater.”

Koike herself has a way of speaking that tends to inflate expectations. She advertises such widespread reforms in the capital that it’s as if she’s staging a full-blown Tokyo revolution. Though her reforms are actually administrative reforms in which she would implement drastic government improvements, there is an incredible artistry to her overblown rhetoric when it comes to the performance aspect. It’s truly made for TV.

Denouncing the Tokyo government as a den of corruption and network of irresponsibility, the freshly-elected Koike marched into the metropolitan offices with a team of thirteen special advisors as if she were General McArthur acting as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. Using her Office of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Reform as a base of operations, she tackled issues like the Tsukiji Market, the Olympics, and exposing the hidden workings of government. Her eagerness inspired public optimism, but since then she and two or three of her advisors have made important decisions behind closed doors, making a lack of transparent decision-making apparent. She did not trust Tokyo government bureaucrats, and whipped up opposition in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly beyond what is necessary. Perhaps she was still elated from having won the Tokyo gubernatorial election as a lone wolf, but going out of her way to stand in front of the directors general and tell them “I’m not MacArthur” in her inaugural address was itself the height of MacArthurian pretentiousness.

Koike followed this up by yanking back the curtain on the Tokyo administration and fully disclosing information to the public. This in turn kicked off a host of other reforms, including Olympic cost-cutting measures and venue reconsiderations as well as exposing the details involved in moving Tsukiji Market to Toyosu. The buildings constructed without proper soil filling, the shouldering of the decontamination costs, and the sloppiness of the entire affair concerning the relocation to Toyosu were brought to light. Ultimately, she instigated the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly to call twenty-some witnesses, including former governor Shintaro Ishihara and former directors general and CEOs, to testify.

A year wrapped up in Koike Theater

In a sense, it certainly seems that the goals of the Koike administration over the past year have all been focused on July’s electoral victories in the Tokyo Assembly. There has been an obvious decision to prioritize politics over policy. One of Koike’s campaign promises, dissolving the assembly once it is convened, was meant to expose the opaque decision-making process of a government body that worked in collusion with the governor and whose strings continued to be pulled by specific party bosses, thus breaking the LDP’s hold over its operations. Practically speaking, Koike’s landslide victory in the races achieved that aim.

Immediately after securing the governorship, we were treated to the performance of Koike halving her own salary in order to put the excessive compensation of assembly members in stark relief. As a means of countering old-school LDP politics, Koike set up her own private political school, Kibo no Juku (School of Hope) to develop political protégés and placed them under her regional political group Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), using these organizations to pump her candidates into the Tokyo Assembly elections.

These actions likely stem from Koike’s view of the problem, which is that she “can’t govern without replacing a sizable portion of the Tokyo Assembly.” And she was prepared to win the elections by any means necessary. Just before the announcements for Tokyo Assembly election, when the Tsukiji issue was a major point of contention, Koike held an impromptu press conference under the slogan “Make Toyosu work! Save Tsukiji!” without consulting anyone. She simply said that Tsukiji would also be redeveloped in five years’ time after moving the market to Toyosu, and neither grounds for funding nor the specifics of redevelopment were revealed.

It would be correct to consider this as her election strategy to collect all votes of both pro-Toyosu and anti-Toyosu groups which were then deeply divided. Koike’s arbitrary decision also warded off criticism that she’s a governor who can’t make up her mind, and effectively secured the election results she wanted. What she didn’t expect, however, was the dark shadow it would cast over subsequent municipal government operations.

We’ve now seen a year of the Koike administration. The information disclosure, Olympic budget cuts and venue changes in the interest of cost reductions, and efforts to introduce transparency to the Toyosu relocation process are commendable. At the same time, however, Koike’s independent decision to postpone the move has eroded the confidence of Tsukiji traders and damaged the reputation of Toyosu by spreading nationwide rumors about its unsuitability. Koike’s snap decisions have also cost her trust among other prefectural governors, as when she was forced to retract her off-the-cuff statement that the canoe and rowing venue would be moved to Miyagi Prefecture.

In any case, Koike’s goal of disrupting the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly LDP, which she had deemed as the main agenda of the Tokyo administration reform since she first took office, was accomplished with her sweeping victories in the assembly elections on July 2. She may have succeeded in creating an imaginary foe and taking it on herself in the name of justice, undercutting the LDP and party bosses’ hold on the assembly through political marketing tactics—but this approach won’t work going forward. Why not? Because Koike is out of enemies. If anything, her next opponent is likely to be the seeds of discord that she’s sown herself. No matter what happens, though, we’re sure to see the end of the Koike Theater that has kept the public in a frenzy thus far.

The Mainichi Newspaper ran a chart scoring the Koike administration’s first year according to three political experts—Shiro Asano, Hiroko Ogiwara, and me.

When it came to specific issues, I rated her fairly generously with a 5 on information disclosure, 3 on Tsukiji-related issues, and a 4 on assembly reform; however, my overall rating was much harsher at 3.5 out of 5.

Analyzing the Tokyo assembly elections: Repeated bubble phenomena

Let’s look at those assembly elections in more detail. This past election represented a grand cause in that it was an opportunity—one that comes once every four years—for assembly members who hold public office to renew or obtain credentials allowing them to participate in public decision-making.

Unlike a typical year, however, two additional grand causes came into play last July. One was the fact that the event served as a midterm election for the Koike administration, now a year old and still enjoying its meteoric rise. Secondly, it served as a mid-term election for the Abe cabinet, plagued by a series of glaring examples of neglect and lose morals—among them the issues with Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, the steamrolling of the anti-terror conspiracy bill, and scandals among junior LDP Diet members.

So when it comes to the question of what the electorate was voting for in the metropolitan government, people’s honest conclusion would be that they simply don’t know—even as they look at the lineup of winning candidates. Perhaps the electorate was driven by a rejection of Abe’s administration. In fact, many people say that they have never seen nor heard of many of the 55 winning Tokyoites First candidates (among them 39 newcomers) before.

Before the election began, there was a certain amount of criticism towards the way Koike was handling the Tsukiji relocation and review of the Olympic facilities; namely, that she had posed problems without finding solutions, or that she was running a one-woman show by putting her special advisors in important positions and failing to consult with the assembly, staff members, or citizens before making decisions. But the violent storm swept in and blew those criticisms aside.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections involve 127 seats, making them the largest regional elections in the country. They also always seem to overlap the national elections in some way. Just as cries for a change in leadership resulted in the Democratic Party being voted into the Tokyo assembly eight years ago, so did this year’s election set the stage for the anti-Koike LDP (national government). The repeated slip-ups in the Abe administration since April created mounting expectations for a rise in political power elsewhere.

It was initially thought that it would be difficult to translate Koike’s popularity into votes for the Tokyoites First party in the assembly elections, but the governor’s urgency led her to declare herself head of the party and position herself on the front lines. Disregarding the political stagnation in the metropolitan government, Koike devoted all her energies to the elections, day after day, for two solid weeks. The Kake Gakuen incident, scandals among junior members of the Lower House, and a series of other issues plaguing the LDP on the national level—coupled with a lackluster response in the Democratic Party, political mistrust, and general dissatisfaction with politics—prompted all eyes to turn towards Koike’s new Tokyoites First party.

As a result, Koike’s popularity did lead to votes. As table 1 shows, the Tokyoites First party achieved a sweeping victory with 55 seats, while the LDP drastically fell to second place with only 23 seats, hitting a historic low, along with the Komeito party.

  LDP Komeito Communist DP Tokyoites TSN JIP SDP Other Independents Total
Total 23 23 19 5 55 1 1 0 0 0 127
Current members 21 19 11 3 11 1 1 0 0 0 67
Former members 0 0 0 1 5 0 0 0 0 0 6
New members 2 4 8 1 39 0 0 0 0 0 54
Before election 57 22 17 7 6 3 1 0 0 13 126
Table 1. Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election results 2017 by party
Note: There was one vacant seat before the election.

While these results were expected to some degree, nobody thought that the LDP would lose this many seats, nor that the emerging power of Tokyoites First would claim such a sweeping victory. In fact, newspaper headlines just prior to the election day claimed that Tokyoites First and the LDP party would vie for the dominant position.

At any rate, the “Koike bubble” has now taken over the political landscape. This phrase was coined by me, but just like an economic bubble, it describes a phenomenon where expectations exceed real capacity. In this case, the number of votes and number of seats are both inflated beyond a practical ability to deliver.

Fundamentally speaking, the Tokyo assembly elections tend to experience a bubble phenomenon every four years (see table 2).

Table 2. Majority parties in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections (three most recent)

2009 election:54 DPJ / 38 LDP / 23 Komeito ←majority(DPJ) percentage:(42.5%)
2013 election:15 DPJ / 59 LDP / 23 Komeito ←majority(LDP) percentage:(46.4%)
2017 election:55 Tokyoites First / 23 LDP / 23 Komeito ←majority(TF) percentage:(43.3%)

Eight years ago, the Democratic Party claimed a sweeping victory with 54 seats in the assembly, bolstered by waves of change with a new national administration. Four years ago, the tide reversed when the LDP scored a major victory with 59 seats, ousting the DPJ from power. This year, Koike’s new party (Tokyoites First) were the clear winners with 55 seats, fueled by a deep-seated grudge against the LDP for not officially endorsing the governor’s candidacy. This means that the majority party has been completely replaced every four years.

In all three cases, no political party or faction has secured the working majority of 64 seats, where the majority party’s percentage still hovers in the low 40s. This is a defining feature of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. The fact that the Komeito party has held onto its 23 seats for seven elections running further solidifies this trend. In this past election, the Komeito suddenly dissolved the LDP-Komeito alliance (the ruling party) that had been in place for more than thirty years—since the time when Shunichi Suzuki was governor. Riding Koike’s coattails, Komeito instead joined forces with the Tokyoites First; as a result, the governor now has more than majority support in the assembly following the election.

This kind of tug-of-war has thus been continuing in the assembly elections. This seems to be largely the making of independents, whose voting behavior always expects a dramatic finish. In short, the Koike Bubble is hardly surprising when we look at it objectively. It’s the same thing we’re used to seeing with these elections each time. And just like with economic bubbles, this one is also bound to burst within a few years. That said, as long as we don’t see Tokyoites First dissolve or Komeito leave the ruling party coalition four years from now, we’re likely to continue to see the two as an ongoing majority force in Tokyo politics.

It remains to be seen whether the sweeping victory of Tokyoites First with its 39 brand new assembly members will meet with luck or misfortune as the winners attempt to actually govern the city and run the assembly. It will likely be the former if they are able to infuse the administration with fresh perspectives; the latter if they act merely as a subcontracted group of yes-men under Governor Koike.

What did the citizens of Tokyo vote for?

It’s not clear what the voters supported in this past assembly election. Rather than debate on how its 13 million residents might want the city to be governed—every party and every candidate simply talked about whether they backed Koike or not, or whether they were pro- or anti- Abe. And in my mind, this was an election where no actual issues are debated, simply an aerial combat, heavily swayed by emotion over substance. In the last five years, the metropolitan government has spent five billion yen in each of its four gubernatorial elections, and another five billion in this and the past assembly election. So what were the citizens voting for as they poured this massive amount of money—25 billion yen total—into their elections? Is this a symbol of Japan’s becoming hyper-concentrated on Tokyo? From the perspective of rural areas on the brink of extinction itself, it’s hard to see this as anything more than a city rolling in dough, carried away with its own election bubble.

One of the major issues facing the future of metropolitan governance is the way that the assembly conducts itself. Just because Tokyoites First (effectively led by Koike) has secured so many seats doesn’t necessarily mean that as ruling party it can get the job done right from the citizen’s perspective. Remember that Tokyoites First is a group of political protégés that were elected because they were representing Koike and because their candidacies were directly endorsed by the governor. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, meanwhile, is a decision-making body that is different than the executive branch of the governorship—and yet Tokyoites First is Yuriko Koike. It’s therefore hard to imagine that the freshmen Tokyoites First assembly members will do anything but fall in lockstep with their leader.

For a year, this group has publically vowed to support whatever the governor decides on the Tsukiji relocation issue, which has been treated as the most important of administrative reform in the capital. Since the group has become the majority party in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, wouldn’t it be more honest to say that the governor and the assembly are not two wheels on a cart, but rather acting as a single overlapping wheel?

This situation is unacceptable. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly cannot become subordinate to the Tokyo governor or act as a subcontracted organization or ratifying body. This is the first principle of local governance. Comprising one of the two wheels which support the cart of local government, each assembly member has the responsibility to maintain a tense, resistant relationship with the governor while refining budgets and policies and acting in a supervisory role. We simply cannot allow our capital’s administration to ride roughshod over that basic founding principle.

This spring, the Tokyo assembly established an investigation committee to probe into the details of how the Tsukiji market relocation, decided under former governor Ishihara, had come about—even going so far as to call in witnesses—and exposed the lack of transparency as a result. The fiasco can be taken as proof that the LDP and the Komeito, having ruled the governorship for so long, had lost a functioning system of checks and balances. Koike forcefully denounced this situation during the recent election, and gained widespread support for her reformist stance.

Criticism, however, has now come in the form of claims that she is an indecisive governor and one that arbitrarily makes and carries out decisions. The day after the Tokyo assembly elections, criticism mounted further as people found it suspect that the Tokyo governor should be the leader (head representative) of a political party in what was supposed to be a system of two-part representation. Koike immediately renounced her representative role the same day, but the position was once again filled by her closest confidante and right-hand man, special secretary Kazusa Noda. Not only that, the decision to do so was—shockingly—made by the two of them alone.

With so many newly minted assembly members post-election (not before the election), why would the special secretary—a city staff member and someone with neither an assembly experience nor political legitimacy—be appointed as head of the party? Taxpayer money does not pay the special secretary’s salary in order for him to perform that role. Nor is the special secretary to the governor Koike’s private secretary. His is a public servant position designed to assist the governor, and one that comes with a private car, private room, and handsome compensation at 14.1 million yen a year.

How, then, can Koike explain to the general public the fact that the two of them decided to make him head of the party based on a private conversation? The move is simply a ruse to ward off criticism, when it’s obvious that Koike continues to be the de facto head of her party. Noda is nothing more than a smokescreen—so where is the transparency and exposure that the governor has been touting all this time?

If Koike keeps up these fictions and sleights of hand, sooner or later her entire foundation is going to be called into question. People are going to ask what the assembly election was all about, how Koike is actually running the metropolitan government, and whether or not she’s treating it as her personal enterprise. How is she going to respond to mounting interrogations about an administration that has turned into a black box?

The future of the Tokyo government: Policy, not politics!

What the recent assembly elections should have been about was not the Tsukiji market relocation or Olympic facilities, but about how to respond to Tokyo as an aging city post-2020. In terms of policy, the metropolis needs to decide whether it is going to prioritize economics or quality of life. I expect that the answer will be to prioritize quality of life and its citizens. The reason for this is that there is no precedent for a major city dealing with low birthrates and a graying population, and because there is so much anxiety about the effects of an aging Tokyo on both hard and soft infrastructure.

The disparities within Tokyo are one example. The gaps between the Tokyo wards area and the Tama area, gaps within the twenty-three special wards. Add to that the income gaps among residents, the educational disparities that result in gaps in earning power, and the gaps between those without a full-time job (comprising one in three Tokyoites) and those with it. Finding a way to address these problems is a major issue for the city. Then there’s updating the urban infrastructure—Tokyo’s aging roads, bridges, municipal water systems, and more. The government also needs to put some effort into risk management, as we have no idea when the city will take a direct hit from a major earthquake, or when and if a terror attack may strike.

Of course, resolving these issues will require massive amounts of funding. While the city is funded by an ample 14 trillion yen, primarily made up of generous tax revenues, this figure is not carved in stone as it is heavily dependent on corporate taxes—which themselves are highly vulnerable to economic trends. Should we be hit by a recession, the city could lose out on a trillion yen annually in tax revenue, all in the blink of an eye. It’s something that Tokyo has struggled with in the past.

As long as we stick to the current system of tax administration, our fiscal management has no choice but to ride the waves. Rather than becoming enamored with policy fads, it is absolutely essential that we come up with a solid fiscal plan, find ways to work efficiently, and exercise discipline in our fiscal management. And it is the role of the Tokyo governor to take the lead in executing those operations. The success of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is important for the Japanese people, but it is the duty of the governor to protect her citizens’ way of life and ensure that Tokyo is a safe and comfortable place to live.

Word on the street is that the so-called New Koike Party will be in the eye of the storm during the next House of Representatives election. People are starting to treat Koike as if her political goal is to return to national government; whether or not she will confirm this suspicion remains to be seen. In any case, isn’t the best thing she can do for the nation’s people to skillfully manage the political affairs of its capital in her role as governor? The last thing we need is a flaky governor who is simply biding her time before she can return to national politics and announce a run at prime minister. We’ve already learned our lesson the hard way with Shintaro Ishihara.

Instead, Koike should make pivotal changes to Tokyo policy with a growth model in mind. I urge the governor not to put the media first, but to actually put the lives of her citizens first, facing the problems of an aging Tokyo head-on with a post-2020 mindset. Put forth a vision for a new Tokyo, draft essential policies for metropolitan governance, and boldly, proactively work towards autonomous governance.


So far, we have seen a Koike administration that governs the city without strong pillars and makes winning elections its top priority. But the curtains are now falling on this “theater.” What lies ahead? Will Koike end up with hollow successes that stall out? Or will she rebuild a broken system with substance under the banner of a Tokyo Revolution? Her administration has truly come to a fork in the road.

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Public administration, Theories of local governance

Professor Sasaki was born in 1948. He earned a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University and a doctor of law from Keio University. Sasaki worked for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for sixteen years before being hired on as a professor at Seigakuin University in 1989, and a professor at Chuo University in 1994. He served as a visiting researcher at the University of California (UCLA) in 2000, and has served as a professor in both the Graduate School of Economics and the Faculty of Economics at Chuo University since 2001. He specializes in the areas of public administration and local self-government. He has lectured at Keio University, Meiji University, Nihon University, Saitama University, and Tamagawa University, served as a visiting professor at Tohoku Fukushi University and Seigakuin University, and served on the Japanese government’s 31st Local Government System Research Council. He concurrently serves as a member of the Science Council of Japan (Cabinet Office), and as a special advisor to the Osaka City and Osaka Prefectural governments.
His recent publications include Aging Tokyo [Oiru Tokyo] (Kadokawa Shinsho, March 2017), Tokyo’s Big Problem [Tokyo no Daimondai] (MyNavi Shinsho, December 2016), Counterattack of the Local Assembly Members [Chihō Giin no Gyakushū] (Kodansha Shinsho), Regional Revitalization in an Era of Depopulation [Jinkō Genshō Jidai no Chihō Sōsei Ron] (PHP), The New Shape of Japan [Aratana “Nihon no Katachi”] (Kadokawa SSC Shinsho), The Governor of Tokyo: Power and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government [Tochiji – Kenryoku to Tosei] (Chuko Shinsho), The Tokyo Government Office: A second administration [Tochō—Mou Hitotsu no Seifu], and more. He has received the NHK Local Broadcast Cultural Award and the Japan Society for Urbanology Prize. He is also frequently invited to speak on television and radio programs, provide press commentary, and give local lectures.