Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan May 29, 2017.  Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan May 29, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may think Kim Jong-un is the biggest problem facing his premiership today.

Or perhaps it’s Donald Trump starting a trade war or tweeting about the yen. Maybe it’s those damn whistleblowers at schools in Osaka and Ehime Prefecture.

Nope, his real challenge is Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

Certainly, Koike has been a thorn in the prime minister’s side since August, when she maneuvered around Abe’s chosen candidate to win the governorship of Japan’s capital.

She dared to question the runaway costs of the 2020 Olympics, delayed moving Tsukiji fish market and dragged Liberal Democratic Party hero Shintaro Ishihara, a one-time Tokyo governor himself, in for questioning about spending on the market project.

But her triumph Sunday to lead reformist candidates into office will surely give Abe nightmares about Koike making a run for his job.

This win is significant for three reasons.

One, Koike achieved it outside Abe’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party, which she left on May 31.

Two, she’s finally transcending the gender issue. When pundits in the past talked of Koike as a future leader, it was often couched in it’s-time-for-a-woman terms.

Three, Koike now has the momentum, Abe’s scandal- and gaffe-prone government doesn’t.

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of this last point. In recent years, I’ve heard countless politicians, businesspeople, colleagues and friends say something to the effect of “well, I don’t love Abe, but who else is there?”

The tired question list that follows is usually: “The milquetoast Fumio Kishida? The hawkish Shigeru Ishiba? Some reality-TV star?” Shrugs all around.

Koike -– smart, internationally-minded and cagy — may be filling the who’s-next shoes quite nicely.

Political earthquake

It’s not my role to pick or boost prime-ministerial candidates. And clearly, the path to a national victory by a candidate outside the LDP or the Democratic Party would have to be forged in what’s still largely a one-party state. The LDP, after all, has held power with only two brief interruptions -– in 1993 and 2009 — since 1955.

But Koike having the momentum is nothing short of a political earthquake.

Big Tokyo victories can often be harbingers of the LDP losing power, as in 2009.

Koike’s Tomin First (Tokyo Residents First) party had 6 seats going into the election and won 49 amid rising voter turnout that suggests a burst of populism in Asia’s No. 2 economy.

The LDP had 57 seats and came out of the Tokyo assembly vote holding just 23, a record low.

What’s more, Koike has the support of other parties that won seats, suggesting she’ll have the backing of 79 members in the 127 seat assembly.

“The result is much better that we expected,” she said in a Fuji TV interview.

It was an enough of a wakeup call for Abe’s party to schedule an emergency meeting Monday to assess the damage.


Yet if populism is pushing Koike toward national leadership, it’s driven more by voter fatigue than the vitriolic fervor that delivered Donald Trump to the White House and Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippine presidential palace.

That’s a key reason why a Koikenomics alternative to Abenomics could be more substance than bluster (or testosterone run amok).

Abe’s revival scheme is straightforward and broadly supported by Japan’s 127 million people. The problem, 4 ½ years on, is implementation.

Only one of three pillars –- monetary easing -– has been fully deployed. The second –- fiscal pump priming helped by 2020 Olympic construction -– was complicated by a dim-witted 2014 consumption-tax hike.

But major structural reform, the third and most vital phase, barely materialized and prospects are slipping away along with Abe’s approval ratings amid cronyism scandals.

Koike might do better on structural change. Abe is a bait-and-switch politician.

He says look here, I’m revolutionizing the economy to make Japan great again, when really he’s really focused on Constitutional reforms that are unpopular with voters.

His rush to amend a pacifist post-war charter revered by most Japanese, while wages stagnate and deflation persists largely, explains Sunday’s rout.

Abe, once wildly popular, was heckled at a stump speech Saturday amid calls to “go home” and “resign.” Voters seemed to agree.

A few important differences might come from a Prime Minister Koike.

Odds are she’d actually take on Japan Inc. in ways Abe hasn’t had the courage to — loosening labor markets, challenging a seniority-and-male-based promotion system, encouraging entrepreneurship, devising a new energy policy, finding ways to thrive without devaluing the yen or adding to the world’s largest public debt burden.

She’d be sure to take “womenomics” more seriously to boost growth and productivity simply by better utilizing the female workforce.

Finally, Koike may bring less baggage to the China relationship. Yes, she’s a staunch conservative with nationalistic tendencies. Unlike Abe, though, her grandfather didn’t oversee Japan’s brutal leadership in Manchuria during World War II.

It’s always a mistake to underestimate Abe. His return to the prime minister’s office in 2012 after a hapless 2006-2007 stint took many by surprise.

So did his success in convincing the world Abenomics was more than a public relations ploy.

Abe’s party even has picked up on Trump’s attack-the-media line in recent days, as if it’s journalists’ fault his economic policies fell short.

And the Koike shock could always catalyze Abe to change tack and resurrect his fortunes.

But make no mistake: the plausible Abe replacement everyone said didn’t exist a few weeks ago is here. Underestimate Yuriko Koike at your peril.