TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s Yuriko Koike says she went into politics to be a player, not a bystander.
Now Tokyo’s first female governor is shaking things up as her new “Party of Hope” challenges Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc in an Oct. 22 poll, called by the Japanese leader to seek a fresh mandate after nearly five years in office.
When the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany was breached in 1989, Koike was a 37-year-old TV announcer. Three years later, she ran for parliament.
“The world was changing immensely, so I went from news presenter to newsmaker. I decided Japanese politics was moving too slowly and rather than be an outside critic, I should become ... a player on the inside,” Koike told Reuters in an interview.
Koike, who defied Abe’s party last year to run for governor, isn’t seeking a seat in parliament’s lower house herself, but is the driving force – and public face – of her upstart party.
In many ways, Koike is a paradox, interviews with people who know her and a review of her career show.
She’s a global thinker with a nationalist tinge; an entrepreneurial outsider who climbed the ladder with help from old-boy mentors, and a risk taker who has balked at perhaps her biggest gamble by declining to run in the national election now.
Koike has made no secret of her ambition to be Japan’s first woman prime minister – her pet female terrier is nicknamed “So-chan” – a diminutive for “sori” or “premier” in Japanese.
She has already cracked a few glass ceilings.
She became the country’s first female defense minister in 2007, although stepped down after 55 days after a tussle with a top bureaucrat. She was also the first woman to run for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s top leadership post in 2008, but came in a distant third.
Koike comes from a business family in western Japan, a background that sets her apart from many Japanese politicians, including Abe, who are scions of blue-blood political dynasties.
Her origins may account for a style that admirers say has more in common with venture capitalists than staid lawmakers.
“She’s not afraid to take initiatives, which in most of Japan is deeply frowned upon,” said a person who has known her for 25 years and advises on financial reforms. “In Japan, it’s subtlety within riddles, but she’s blunt.”
Koike has a talent for political marketing - critics call it populism - a skill she is using as she tries to differentiate her conservative party from Abe’s equally conservative LDP with promises to “break the fetters” of vested interest politics.
She calls her party’s economic policies “Yurinomics” in contrast to Abe’s “Abenomics, and its platform includes “12 Zeroes” it wants to achieve, including “zero hayfever”, and “zero euthanasia of unwanted pets”.
A graduate of Cairo University in 1976 who speaks Arabic and English, Koike in some ways has a global perspective and often sings the praises of diversity.
Like Abe, she advocates opening Japan to more highly skilled foreign workers. Also like Abe, she has visited Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen in China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, but told Reuters she would not do so if she became premier.
Koike also espouses some causes dear to Japan’s rightwing, including revising the post-war, pacifist constitution.
In the past, she has even suggested Japan should consider acquiring nuclear weapons, breaking a taboo in the only country to suffer a nuclear attack. She also opposes local voting rights for foreign residents, many of whom are of Korean descent.
“There is a dark side that doesn’t jibe with a more open-minded, dare we say, liberal view,” said her long-time acquaintance.
Koike migrated through several parties before joining the LDP in 2002, only to abandon it after becoming governor.
She counts among her mentors Ichiro Ozawa, a one-time LDP heavyweight who helped engineer the long-ruling party’s ouster in 1993 and again in 2009, as well as popular ex-premier Junichiro Koizumi.
Critics say her career reflects an opportunist streak, while allies call it practical.
“She wants to make change, but she’s also pragmatic – she can make a deal with anyone – Communists or Abe or traditional stakeholders,” said another adviser. “It’s a kind of talent.”
Despite speculation that she would abandon her job as governor to return to parliament, Koike stuck to her decision not to run. Analysts say that’s likely because her party has little chance of defeating Abe’s ruling bloc, but may do well enough for her to take the leap in the next poll.
But those who know Koike say her desire for the nation’s top post remains. “Is she Machiavellian and strategic? The answer is yes. Is she prepared to think for the long run? The answer is yes,” said her long-time acquaintance.
“Is her over-riding ambition to be Japan’s first female prime minister? That is definitely a goal.”
Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Nobuhiro Kubo and Ami Miyazaki; Editing by Bill Tarrant