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Japan Political Pulse: Tokyo governor looks to form new 'school' -- and a party

The change in the leadership of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) fails to hold my attention. This is largely because the party lacks the zeal to cut into the various contradictions in its policies with the preparedness to face a possible party break-up if necessary. It also gives off the impression that there's not the slightest possibility that the party will threaten the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Hence, television, which values eye-catchiness and viewer ratings, has focused on the dramas of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's administration instead. The second phase of the controversy surrounding the relocation of Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo's Chuo Ward to Toyosu in Koto Ward has been chock-full of surprises. Recent revelations have threatened to undermine the very foundations of the relocation plan. Let us take a look at the backdrop against which this problem is taking place: the tug-of-war between "the don" of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and Koike, with her plans for a "politics school."

It was on Sept. 15, surrounded by reporters at Haneda Airport, that the 64-year-old Koike announced that she was considering setting up her own school of politics to nurture and train future politicians.

A "Koike school of politics" has the potential of metamorphosing into a new political party with Koike at the helm.

If the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) does not cooperate with Gov. Koike's governance of Tokyo, a new political party headed by Koike could field its own candidates in the Tokyo assembly election set for June 2017 in order to squeeze LDP candidates out of the assembly. This has to be what Koike is implying by declaring that she's considering the establishment of her own school of politics.

In the July 31 Tokyo gubernatorial election, the ruling LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito backed former internal affairs minister Hiroya Masuda, 64, but lost against rival Koike, also an LDP member. The mainstream LDP Tokyo assembly members who put their weight behind Masuda in the election now have a deep-seated resentment toward the Koike camp for forcing a split among conservatives.

This grudge is evident in the penalties to which seven local assembly members who supported Koike in the election -- five from the Toshima Ward Assembly and two from the Nerima Ward Assembly -- have been subjected.

As far as LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, known as an extreme realist, and other top LDP leaders are concerned, the tensions that arose from the gubernatorial election are settled. Koike ran for the governor's office in defiance of the LDP leadership's orders, but because she won, she has not been subject to any penalties. Masaru Wakasa, 59, also an LDP member of the House of Representatives on the proportional representation ticket in the Tokyo constituency, was a vocal supporter of Koike in the gubernatorial race. But he was merely given a strong verbal warning from Nikai.

Wakasa was forgiven because he vowed to work "toward the goal of expanding the party's power." He has since applied to run in the House of Representatives by-election in Tokyo's No. 10 constituency on Oct. 23 for the spot left open by Koike.

Koike has frequently been featured as a victorious heroine, which would lead one to expect the LDP's Tokyo chapter to back down. But the complete opposite has been true.

The LDP Tokyo chapter's Party Ethics Committee met at party headquarters in Tokyo's Nagatacho district on Sept. 16, and advised the seven Tokyo ward assembly members who supported Koike to withdraw from the party. "Unless you do so by Oct. 30," the advisory said, "you will be expelled from the party."

At the core of the 10-person Party Ethics Committee, comprising Diet members from the Tokyo constituencies and members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, is 77-year-old Shigeru Uchida, the previous secretary-general of the LDP's Tokyo chapter known as the "don" of the Tokyo assembly.

Shortly after the punishments were decided by the committee, the LDP Tokyo chapter's top policymaking group, consisting of some 200 top members of 60 LDP chapters from all municipalities in Tokyo, met to discuss the penalties. Only three attendees spoke, all from the Kita Ward Assembly. They urged that the seven ward assembly members be expelled immediately, and asked why Wakasa had so easily been let off the hook. Hakubun Shimomura, 62, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly's new chairman and acting secretary-general of party headquarters, was forced to repeat answers that failed to fully convince those posing the questions.

The meeting lasted approximately 50 minutes, and no one in attendance voiced any arguments against the meting out of punishments. Even given that the organization concerned is a municipal one, why is it that a crucial meeting of ruling party members was dominated by calls for harsh penalties that resemble each other -- as well as, or rather, mostly -- silence?

When I asked an attendee that very question, I was given a wry smile and the response, "We're afraid of 'the don.'" But what about public opinion, I asked. "There are a lot of Tokyo assembly members who are concerned about public opinion, but 'the don' and the mainstream LDP assembly members can't hold back their anger toward Koike. They're completely out of touch with public sentiment, and none of them can imagine reconciliation with the Koike camp.

"The mainstream LDP members are assuming that even if Koike establishes a new political party, the LDP would still capture at least 50 seats in the Tokyo assembly election." Of the 127 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly seats, the LDP currently holds 60, while coalition partner Komeito has 23.

Taking back "liberty" and "democracy" in the LDP's Tokyo chapter will be the next major theme of the ongoing drama surrounding Gov. Koike. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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