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Japan Political Pulse: Much ado about nothing in the capital?

The headline "Koike to ax the don of Tokyo assembly" was splashed across the evening tabloids in the Tokyo Metro region on Sept. 1, the day the headquarters for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's in-house reforms was established.

    Needless to say, "Koike" refers to the newly elected governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, 64, and "the don" refers to Shigeru Uchida, 77, a leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and the previous secretary-general of the LDP's Tokyo chapter.

    Although Koike won by a landslide in the gubernatorial race with 2.91 million votes, she has yet to possess the power to dismiss her political enemy -- even though she did return victoriously from Rio de Janeiro, waving the Olympic flag as she descended the steps from a plane onto the tarmac at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics.

    Her enemies are just waiting for her to make a misstep. Opportunists are lying in wait with bated breath, closely watching the battle unfold.

    On Aug. 31, Gov. Koike announced that the Tsukiji Fish Market's relocation from Tsukiji to Toyosu, which had been planned for this coming November, would be postponed. The move was in accordance with her campaign platform, but the actual decision was a risky one. There's a complicated background to the plan for Tsukiji market's relocation, which had become too small for its needs.

    Says one Diet member, "Koike says she'll wait until the new groundwater test results are released (in January 2017), but I can't imagine that the new results will overturn the environmental assessment that's already been carried out. It's likely just a move on her part to buy time and wait for the don's power to decline."

    Goings-on in the metropolitan government and assembly lack transparency, and numerous tips have been submitted to the in-house reform headquarters since it was set up. The governor's right-hand man is 59-year-old Masaru Wakasa, a former prosecutor in the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office and current LDP House of Representatives lawmaker, who defied party leaders' orders and supported Koike -- also of the LDP -- in the gubernatorial election.

    However, there is no guarantee that any of the tips coming into the reform headquarters will lead to criminal investigations and a change in the power balance. If this all turns out to have been much ado about nothing, it could work to Koike's disadvantage.

    Postponing the market's relocation for six months would cost 1.2 billion yen. Would the Tokyo assembly approve that sort of spending? There's also the possibility that residents will sue. Demands that Koike pay for stirring everything up for no good reason could emerge.

    A political fundraiser celebrating Uchida's 40-year political career -- with organizers and attendees seeming as if they already knew how things will pan out between Koike and Uchida -- was held on the night of Aug. 24 at the ritzy Palace Hotel in the Marunouchi district of Tokyo. All media were banned from the event, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, and LDP General Council Chairman Hiroyuki Hosoda among the 1,000-plus guests.

    Tokyo is a fierce battleground in national elections. The LDP big-wigs who attended the fundraiser likely felt they couldn't afford to skip a celebratory occasion of a man who effectively controls elections in the capital.

    Still, senior LDP officials have learned the hard way that Koike knows how to fight in the big leagues. There's at least one past case in which she forced a political enemy to back down.

    In August 2007, when Koike was defense minister during Shinzo Abe's first stint as prime minister, she clashed with a powerful administrative vice minister over a personnel appointment. Koike requested that the vice minister, who had been at the post for over four years, resign, but the vice minister refused. Then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki expressed support for the vice minister, but Koike refused to back down, went straight to the prime minister, and had the vice minister removed.

    Koike may have appeared to have done what she did on a whim. However, having been appointed Cabinet minister after serving as an aide to the prime minister on the issue of national security, Koike had a political reason behind her actions.

    Taking the case of a Maritime Self-Defense Force officer who leaked classified information on the Aegis air defense system in March 2007 very seriously, Koike tried to appoint a former National Police Agency official as the new vice minister. That's where she clashed with the then vice minister. A week later, Koike unceremoniously announced her resignation from her Cabinet post citing her responsibility for the Aegis leak.

    As the metropolitan government's big political players -- both old and new -- try to feel each other out, some suggest that the notion that a "don" even exists is a mere illusion.

    "The don doesn't have that much power," says Yoshihiro Katayama, former governor of Tottori Prefecture, who is now a professor at Keio University. "If something fishy is taking place, the way the metropolitan government operates should be changed. Because of the frequency with which protocols are ignored, a heavy reliance on bureaucrats, and tendency for cover-ups, Tokyo politics end up relying on the don. The enemy is within. If Tokyo's administration can change, the illusion of power will disappear."

    Indeed. Let us not be distracted by the political tussle before us lest we lose sight of our original intentions. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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