Japanese Lawmaker Yuriko Koike
Sharing Japan's Experience with Asia
Yuriko Koike, the opening speaker at the upcoming CommonWealth Economic Forum, is Japan's most high-profile woman politician, with her eyes set on the post of prime minister. What role does she envision for Japan in the new Asia?
Sharing Japan's Experience with AsiaBy Sun Hsiaoping
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 459 )
Lawmaker Yuriko Koike is one of Japan's most charismatic and influential politicians. In Japan's male-dominated political world, where prime ministers are constantly being replaced, this former TV anchorwoman has shown remarkable staying power. Elected to the House of Councillors and then the House of Representatives, appointed environment minister and then defense minister, she is now chairperson of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) General Council, and her declared ambition is to become Japan's first female prime minister.
The 58-year-old Koike grew up in an upscale neighborhood in the major port city of Kobe. In the late Meiji era, her merchant grandfather founded a trading company in Seattle on the U.S. west coast. Koike's father Yujiro also ran a trading company dealing in oil. Business trips often took him to Arabian countries. As a result the young Koike frequently came into contact with foreigners and exotic customs and traditions.
In 1971, when studying sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University in western Japan, Koike decided to travel to Egypt to study the Arabic language, although most of her fellow students were flocking to the United States and Europe. Her decision was partly due to her father's reasoning that had left a strong impression on her. "Japan can only survive with the help of oil imports from the Arab countries," Koike's father had told her. "Even though we are so dependent on the Arab countries, the Japanese don't understand them."
Her mother, who had always exhorted her to "do what no one else does," was also very supportive of her decision.
In Egypt Koike worked hard. In 1976, she became the second Japanese national ever to graduate from Cairo University, earning a bachelor degree in sociology.
Upon returning to Japan, Koike began to work as a translator and interpreter of Arabic. Earlier she had once served as interpreter in the entourage of Prime Minister Takeo Miki and then LDP lawmaker Eiichi Nakao during a visit to Egypt. Through her work as a translator, Koike gradually built an extensive personal network.
Koike got an opportunity to show off her language skills when she became the first to interview Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat for a Nippon TV special. Her performance earned her a ticket into journalism, a job as an assistant on a Nippon TV talk show hosted by popular political commentator Kenichi Takemura.
But Koike did not play the traditional part of the attractive assistant who approvingly nods and smiles while occasionally parroting the male host's views. She wasn't coquettish and did not try to play to the audience. Koike frankly stated her own opinion and sometimes even opposed Takemura's stance, which allowed her to develop a distinctive profile. Seven years later Koike jumped ship, taking a job at TV Tokyo as the anchor of a stock market program, and then interviewing business leaders on Top Business Executives. In 1988 she became anchor of TV Tokyo's popular daily business news program World Business Satellite, consolidating her prominent position in TV news journalism.
When former Kumamoto Prefecture governor Morihiro Hosokawa founded the Japan New Party in 1992, he invited Koike to join and run for a seat in the House of Councillors, Japan's upper house. Koike originally did not have much respect for politicians. But she felt that Hosokawa's political platform, which called for market liberalization and greater powers for local governments, addressed Japan's most pressing problems. She was also keenly aware of her own limitations as a journalist. "Making vocal appeals on TV programs didn't change anything," she felt. "The only way I would be able to change Japan was by getting involved in politics myself. And the place where policy is made and implemented is the Diet." Koike left the media and entered the political arena.
That year Koike was elected to the House of Councillors, and in the following year she won a seat in the House of Representatives, the lower house. As Japan's political parties and factions realigned and merged over the following eighteen years, Koike gradually emerged as a leading figure.
In 2008 Koike declared that she would run for the LDP presidency, becoming the first woman to gun for the top post of Japan's largest political party and the premiership that usually comes with it. Although Koike was strongly supported by her mentor, former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, she lost her bid. But in the popular vote by rank-and-file party members, Koike came in second in 35 of Japan's 47 prefectures, demonstrating her strong support among the public.
As head of the LDP General Council, Koike presently holds one of the LDP's three top executive posts (the two others being the secretary general and the chairperson of the Policy Research Council). The LDP, which has ruled Japan for most of the post-war era, lost power to the Democratic Party of Japan after its worst-ever showing in House of Representatives elections in late August last year. The heavy task of regaining power now rests on the shoulders of Koike, who is known to welcome new challenges.
In an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine in Tokyo, the passionate, determined politician, who will participate in the CommonWealth Economic Forum in January next year, shared her political ideas and visions. Following are highlights from the interview:
Q: What made you enter politics?
A: Before I got involved in politics, I served as a TV anchor from 1985 to 1992. During that time the Berlin Wall came down and the Gulf War erupted. At home Japan learned a disheartening lesson from the burst of its bubble economy. I felt that Japan needed to carry out reforms to catch up with all the changes in the world, or else we would be unable to keep progressing. Since it is only possible to achieve these goals if you are politically active, I decided to run for a seat in the House of Councillors in 1992. At the same time I felt that the legislative organs needed lawmakers with a fresh touch. For one thing, I'm a woman, and back then there weren't many female lawmakers. Furthermore, I come from a family that has no political background whatsoever. And I have an international mindset too.
Q: After serving as environment minister you became Japan's first female defense minister. Could you please look back on what actions you took during that time?
A: Serving as defense minister was one of the jobs I most wanted to do, because it is closely related to the nation's most important issue – guaranteeing security. I am grateful that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promoted me to this job. At the time relations between Tokyo and Washington were shaky, but of course still much better than now. I visited the United States to resume dialogue with Washington and restore mutual trust. I also visited India and Pakistan to promote exchanges on national defense. I believe that building trust is of utmost importance, both in public policy and in foreign relations.
Q: Since taking the political stage you have repeatedly changed your party affiliation, first joining the Japan New Party, then the New Frontier Party, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and ultimately the LDP. How do voters feel about such political nomadism?
A: I'm not the only one. A lot of people have done this. It's all because Ichiro Ozawa kept founding one political party after another (after splitting from the LDP), and Japan's political parties were right in the midst of a merger and acquisition phase. I felt that Japanese politics would go awry if we went on like that. That's why I decided to part ways with Ozawa. Now Ozawa seems to be preparing to launch another new party.
Q: You have said that women should place themselves at the core of power. Could you please explain why you think so? Why is it that you have been recruited again and again by those at the center of power, such as former prime minister Hosokawa, former LDP secretary general Ozawa, and former prime ministers Koizumi and Abe?
A: I believe it shouldn't be that men decide and women toe the line in our society. Women should join the decisionmaking circles. They should become "rule makers" instead of always staying on the sidelines. What women need are comprehensive, diverse skills, like the ability to make judgments and manage. The same goes for men.
Since serving as an anchorwoman on financial programs I have often been described as "the first woman to..." no matter what I did. I think that if I set an example, women who come after me will have it easier. I have always had this sense of claiming the wilderness and opening up roads for those following after me. This is my mission.
Why have I been recruited so many times? You should ask this question of those who picked me. I wasn't chosen because I raised my hand to volunteer. Still, when an opportunity comes along, I will surely seize it and give it my very best. My goal has always been to become prime minister. I'm not the only one. Anyone who serves as a politician aspires to become prime minister from the very beginning. If you don't have far-reaching ambitions, being a politician is meaningless. I don't think that Japanese society regards women as inferior to men. We all work hard. Not everyone gets the opportunity to serve as a cabinet minister. And you also don't know which cabinet post you'll receive. But if your goal is to become prime minister, you can take any cabinet post.
Q: You are now chairperson of the LDP General Council. What are your goals?
A: As one of the party's three top executives, I need to take the lead in establishing the party line, formulating the policies that Japan needs, and finding suitable candidates. My task is to win the next election and to wrest back government power. We already have an 80-percent chance of winning.
It is essential for stable development in all of Asia that the LDP quickly returns to power. The current government is too naive and inconsistent, which has caused disharmony in Japan-US relations. It's also the main reason why the disagreement over the Sengaku (Diaoyutai) islands has become so much more complicated.
Once we are back in power, we will consider the situation in Asia. We will first take a closer look at how the meteoric rise of the Chinese dragon will affect the world economy. Now that China has become a major force, it will clearly have both a positive and a negative impact. The Japanese leader plays a very important role when it comes to deciding how Japan should cooperate with neighboring countries without being controlled, while also sharing the fruits of development.
Also, relations between Japan and Taiwan are very important. Safeguarding our maritime lifeline is very important for both Japan and Taiwan. If our maritime lifeline is not stable, this will not only affect our security, but also affect the economy, the economies of Japan, the United States, Taiwan and sometimes South Korea. We need to consider how we can build this, based on the foundation of our security assurances with the U.S.
Q: What are your hobbies?
A: My hobby is my work. Whether I'm on the bus or riding a train or walking, I am always thinking about a lot of things. For instance, Japan has a lot of snowy areas and a rapidly aging society. Shoveling snow is very exhausting, so I have been thinking whether we could invent an automatic snow shovel that is not too expensive, how we could realize that idea.
What is on my mind now is that this year many university and senior high school graduates won't be able to find jobs. I am asking myself how we could provide jobs for them, what kind of employment opportunities should we create?
No matter when and where, I am always thinking about many things. Should I be suddenly appointed to a cabinet post, then I could translate these ideas into action. I like to read (the books of American management guru) Peter F. Drucker very much. If I have received any praise for my work so far, it's that I have done a good job with regard to management.
Q: What message do you intend to convey when addressing the CommonWealth Economic Forum in January next year?
A: The Asian countries will continue to post high growth. We hope to seize this opportunity to reconfirm mutual cooperation for joint growth and find out in which areas we can build consensus. Among the Asian countries, Japan was the first to join the ranks of the advanced nations. But in the past we ran into environmental problems. We paid a heavy price – for example, in water and air pollution. We learned the bitter lesson that an overemphasis on economic development causes environmental destruction. It doesn't take long to destroy the environment, but the time you need to restore it is tens or hundreds of times longer. From that standpoint Japan's experience can serve as a valuable reference for companies in a growing Asia. They can avoid committing the same mistakes all over again. Asia is different from Europe in that many of its countries do not share borders. But marine pollution and waste recycling are all matters that will require future cooperation and consensus building. I hope that Japan can contribute its experiences in that area.
Q: Should you become Japan's first female prime minister, what policies would you like to promote most?
A: There are lots of things I would like to do. One of these is the National Security Council that I have been calling for in the past. It would not only be in charge of national defense and foreign policy, but would also be a strategic planning unit in a much broader sense. I am not beholden to any personal connections. My biggest dream is to promote Japan's progress, which I hope to realize one step at a time.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz