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Tokyo Gov. Koike proves presentation matters as much as policy

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speaks at a press conference at the metropolitan government building on June 19, 2020, about measures against the novel coronavirus. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's performance over the past four years will be tested when she seeks re-election in the capital's gubernatorial election on July 5, but it is a race she is widely expected to win thanks to her name recognition and knack for sloganeering.

A former Arabic interpreter and newscaster, Koike's political style during her first term has at times been described as "theatrical," with her marketing-heavy media strategy proving effective in keeping her front and center.

In her frequent televised and livestreamed press conferences during the coronavirus crisis, Koike peppered her calls for cooperation in curbing the virus' spread with English words such as "stay home" and "lockdown," and popularized the "3 C's" -- a call to avoid high-risk confined spaces, crowded places and close contact.

While some have accused the 67-year-old of prioritizing "style over substance" and criticized her for allegedly delaying the public health response to the pandemic in hopes of keeping the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics on track, her effectiveness in managing the crisis has helped cultivate her image as a strong leader.

Yasushi Aoyama, a political science professor at Meiji University and former vice governor of Tokyo under then-governor Shintaro Ishihara, said that Koike was correct to push ahead with business suspension requests before the central government had even conceived of doing so.

The metropolitan government also provided subsidies to small and medium-sized businesses which allowed them to more easily navigate the pandemic-necessitated shutdown.

"After a few days of back-and-forth arguments in public (with the central government), she ultimately recovered in some people's estimation after a slow start caused by her stubbornness," Aoyama said.

Koike, who became Tokyo's first female governor after a landslide victory in 2016, is once again running as an independent candidate without the support of any party.

Kicking off her election campaign in a two-minute video on June 18, she vowed to step up support for the virus-hit economy and put the future of Tokyo's residents first.

But a recently published biography by author Taeko Ishii has created a stir for its in-depth look into Koike's past, including damning allegations that she embellished her academic records and lied about graduating from Cairo University.

Questions are also being raised about what Koike's tangible achievements have been in four years at the helm.

At the previous gubernatorial election, Koike ran on a platform promising "seven zeros," which included bringing to zero the number of children on Tokyo day-care center wait-lists and burying all overhead power lines. But the only one she was able to achieve was reducing the number of abandoned pets that are euthanized to zero.

Masayasu Kitagawa, a former governor of Mie Prefecture and professor emeritus at Waseda University, said that it is essential that Koike, in running for another term, reflects on the promises she gave four years ago and "rates how much progress she made on each, explaining it in her own words."

Koike, who has decided not to appear in-person at any public forums due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, has once again demonstrated her performative prowess by getting up close and personal on the screen.

In a Twitter post inviting people to ask her questions through the Japanese hashtag "tell it to Yuriko Koike," she wrote "I am prepared to be a punching bag," highlighting her willingness to take warranted criticism.

Since launching the hashtag, Koike has posted YouTube videos almost daily on highly contentious topics such as her "seven zeros" promise and the Tsukiji fish market relocation.

The aging market was originally scheduled to be moved to the newly built wholesale market in Toyosu in November 2016, but Koike, who had assumed her post a few months prior, put the brakes on the project amid concerns about toxic chemicals at the new site.

The move was finally completed almost two years later in October 2018 at the cost of around 600 billion yen ($5.6 billion), including additional costs of around 3.8 billion yen to decontaminate the soil, and around 5 million yen per day to maintain the new site during the delay.

Koike served as defense and environment minister when she was a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but since running for governor without party approval, she has been at odds with its Tokyo chapter, which she criticized for lacking transparency.

During her first term, she formed two political parties in an attempt to wrest control from the ruling party -- one successfully, the other, a national party, not so much.

Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First Party), which she founded in the lead-up to a Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July 2017, scored a sweeping victory and went on to secure an overall majority of seats together with its allies. The tidal wave of support at one point made her a contender to become Japan's first female prime minister.

These political ambitions were further hinted at when Koike launched a national political party, the Party of Hope, to take aim at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration in the 2017 lower house election. But she stepped down as leader in November that year after a crushing defeat, effectively abandoning the fledgling party she founded.

The party's death spiral began when Koike apparently alienated some voters by saying she would "exclude" left-leaning members whose views differed from her on issues such as national security and possible revision of Japan's pacifist Constitution.

The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games have been another high-profile issue for Koike during her first term, with organizers now facing the burden of additional costs incurred by the postponement.

Amid fears of a serious recession in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Tokyo is facing several hundred billion yen in extra costs, a prospect sure to stoke negative public opinion.

Koike is eager to push forward with the games next year, but with other contenders less bullish on the prospect, its fate looks set to be a hot-button topic during election campaigning.

"I expect there will be widespread debate involving Tokyo residents given the issue of who will bear the costs," Aoyama said.

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