Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has a big edge over Shinzo Abe in the popularity stakes. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

TOKYO – Few politicians anywhere are having a better Covid-19 crisis than Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

An odd claim, perhaps, considering the Summer Olympics on which Japan lavished tens of billions of dollars had to be postponed to July 2021 – if it happens at all. Koike, though, is basking in the glow of Tokyo’s relative – and largely unheralded – coronavirus containment success story.

As infection rates explode in the United States, Japan, population 126 million, has just over 20,000 cases. For perspective, tiny Singapore, population 5.8 million, is struggling with more than 45,000 cases.

For that, Japanese voters are crediting Koike’s cautious, hands-on, data-driven approach.

Koike’s linear focus on contact-tracing and locating Covid-19 clusters was in stark contrast to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aloof response. Abe did his popularity no favors by prioritizing the economy and markets over public health.

The question now is whether Koike, 67, can harness the moment to take a run at Abe’s job.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks to media one day after winning the Tokyo Governor election at the Metropolitan Government Office in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo on July 6, 2020. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Koike quit Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in 2016 to run for Tokyo governor. Abe favored a male ally, but Koike called his bluff and beat his candidate.

Her landslide re-election win in Tokyo on July 5 underlined her roughly 70% approval rating, compared with Abe’s sub-40% support level. Historically, approval in the 30s marks lame-duck territory. With a rating worse than Donald Trump’s, Abe is decidedly there.

Cratering growth, scandals and an opaque Covid-19 strategy have hammered Abe, derailing his hopes of winning a fourth term. At this point, Abe will be lucky to finish his third, slated to end in September 2021. A national election must be held on, or before, then. As Abe’s popularity wanes, the odds of him standing dwindles.

Japan’s latest recession, after all, began before the pandemic appeared. Gross domestic product plunged 7.3% between October and December thanks to a terribly timed sales tax hike. That left Japan on a weak footing as coronavirus fallout slammed global demand.

Next, Abe had to apologize for a vote-buying controversy swirling around former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his lawmaker wife. It reminded voters of myriad other Abe-era scandals since 2012. The prime minister’s unsteady Covid-era policies have only intensified the Abe-must-go sentiment.

Koike “has come out of the situation a lot better than Abe,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. The Covid crisis, he says, has been a “stress test” that Koike aced and Abe “failed.”

Abe also is having a Trump problem. No world leader did more to embrace the US president’s bluster.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends an upper house plenary session at parliament in Tokyo on March 11, a day after announcing a second emergency package to tackle economic woes stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

Early on, his realpolitik earned Abe kudos as Trump largely left Tokyo out of his China trade war. Over time, though, voters grew uncomfortable with Japan being Trump’s only real ally among world powers.

Trump did the bromance no favors by trying to shake down Tokyo for increased payments for hosting US troops.

Speculation is rife that Abe might dissolve the Lower House of parliament and call a snap election by the fall. The hope would be to win a new mandate before his approval deteriorates further.

That could be a risky proposition, particularly with an ascendant Koike waiting in the wings.

There are others waiting, too. The alternatives mentioned most are former Foreign Affairs Minister Fumio Kishida and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba. Both, of course, are fellow members of the LDP. It’s the same team that’s ruled Japan with only two brief interruptions since 1955.

Does this make Japan a one-party democracy? The problem, says former Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Mieko Nakabayashi, is a consistently fragmented opposition that “can’t present a united front.”

Opposition forces typically have a hard time devising credible policies at odds with the LDP. And voters, loath to support a losing faction, stick with the political devil they know.

Koike is now with the Tokyoites First Party. To take on Abe, she could return to the LDP, where she retains allies. Or, she can do what the Democratic Party did to wrestle power briefly away from the LDP in 2009: forge alliances with other opposition forces. Not easily done, but Koike may just have the clout to do it.

Koike is arguably Japan’s best chance of reviving a reform process Abe discarded long ago.

Abe served a forgettable year as prime minister between 2006 and 2007, when he handed Koike the defense portfolio. He returned in 2012 refashioned as a bold disruptor – part Ronald Reagan, part Margaret Thatcher.

Tokyo is undergoing a very Japanese form of lockdown. Photo: AFP

His platform was reducing bureaucracy, increasing incoming international labor, enabling innovation, catalyzing a startup boom and empowering women.

Alas, Abe did not deliver. Instead, he relied on aggressive central bank stimulus and a weaker yen – basically, the same playbook as many of his predecessors. So, wages did not rise appreciably to kick off a virtuous cycle of increased consumption and growth.

Even the reform wins Abe chalked up have not reaped the intended benefits.

Tightened corporate governance did little to head off scandals, including the Nissan Motor debacle. And a free-trade deal with Europe has actually been a setback for efforts to eradicate deflation. Cheaper imports are great, but they are putting the Bank of Japan back to square one.

Koike has, of late, displayed more reformist backbone than Abe.

She questioned epic Olympics cost overruns, even summoning LDP hero, former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, to account for runaway costs. She delayed moving the famed Tsukiji fish market amid toxic soil concerns and took on the powerful cigarette lobby by pushing for a smoke-free Tokyo.

Even Japan’s “nuclear village” – a powerful nexus of pro-reactor lawmakers, investors and academics that is Japan’s answer to America’s military-industrial complex, with vast influence and deep pockets – is alarmed.

 The Tokyo governor wants to phase out the nuclear power plants the Japanese came to fear since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. And not only for safety, but for growth. As high-cost Japan looks to create new jobs, wealth and influence, no industry holds greater promise than inventing ways for China and other upstarts to avoid choking on rapid growth.

Since 2012, Abe focused on restarting dozens of reactors switched off after Fukushima, while helping Japan Inc sell nuclear equipment and technology to India, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Signs from an anti-nuclear protest against the Japanese government in Tokyo. Photo: iStock

Koike favors cutting Japan’s carbon footprint to zero, while cultivating a vast network of renewable energy startups. It could be Japan’s best hope of putting new tech unicorns on the scoreboard and creating more economic energy from the ground up.

Gender matters, too. Koike is keen on diversifying Japan’s boardrooms and legislative voices. For all his talk of better utilizing Japan’s female workforce, Japan fell 20 levels on the World Economic Forum’s gender-equality index on Abe’s watch – to 121st.

That puts a G7 economy behind the United Arab Emirates and Benin, and fully 113 places behind the Philippines. China, meanwhile, ranks 52nd.

Koike is a lifelong conservative with her own nationalistic tendencies, but has less baggage with key regional neighbors. Unlike Abe, her grandfather did not preside over Imperial Japan’s brutal reign in Manchuria during the Pacific War.

This lineage, coupled with Trump sycophancy, helped doom Tokyo-Beijing relations at a moment when cooperation between Asia’s two main economic powers has never been more vital.

Abe’s China-decoupling rhetoric ignores the symbiotic relationship that binds the two economies via supply chains.

“That doesn’t necessarily require decoupling, it requires managing risk, and identifying places where greater integration or uncompromised cooperation, let’s put it that way, is not in Japan’s interest,” says Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller, with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, adds that “decoupling has been an unhelpful term, especially in an absolutist sense.” Unless, he says, “the Japanese archipelago moves away from East Asia, decoupling in the sense that many mean it to, just simply is not feasible for the Japan-China relationship.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Since ascending to the Chinese presidency in 2013, Xi Jinping has been his own barrier to better Beijing-Tokyo ties. Abe has handled the relationship poorly, though. Perhaps Koike can do better.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk about the pandemic, March 11, 2020. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

South Korea relations also could do with some fresh thinking. Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are barely on speaking terms as knotty problems, many dating back to colonial rule, intrude.

Things are apt to devolve further come early August if the South Korean courts move ahead with liquidating the assets of Japanese companies accused of profiting from forced wartime labor. Here, too, Abe’s family baggage may make him the wrong leader to engineer a Tokyo-Seoul reboot.

Clearly, Abe’s star is fading. Koike, in the ascendant, looks ready, willing and able to fill the void.

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