The Joker, the wrestler, and the one who took off her shirt: 56 ran but Tokyo governor Koike re-elected

TOKYO – When voters in Tokyo cast their ballot on July 7 to pick the governor of the world’s largest city, they were spoiled for choice as a record 56 candidates made a bid for the post.

One candidate who styled himself “The Joker” proposed legalising marijuana and said polygamy could address the nation’s declining birthrate. Another was a professional wrestler who hid his face on camera and vowed to use artificial intelligence to complete governmental tasks.

There was also a 96-year-old inventor who said he would deploy petrol-fuelled cars that do not emit carbon, and a 31-year-old entrepreneur who took off her shirt during a campaign video, promising “fun things”.

It might look like democracy run amok but the race was, in fact, profoundly status quo, and incumbent Yuriko Koike won a third term as expected.

Ms Koike’s victory provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the governing Liberal Democratic Party, which had backed her in the race. Approval ratings have been falling for the party, and the Tokyo gubernatorial election was viewed in part as a referendum on the national government’s popularity.

The proliferation of candidates could reflect fatigue with politics as usual, but many of the hopefuls were also unserious attention seekers, creating a farcical, circus-like atmosphere and putting real change further out of reach.

“I wonder if this is democracy in action or whether it’s like an ‘up yours’ to democracy,” said Ms Emma Dalton, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Multiple candidates have criticised Ms Koike “in the most vulgar way”, Ms Dalton said, speaking before the election. “Because they know she’s going to win.”

The Tokyo election was emblematic of Japanese politics, where at the national level, the Liberal Democrats have governed for all but four years since 1955. The party has held an iron grip on Japan’s Parliament, despite numerous scandals and widespread voter dissatisfaction that is expressed in polls but rarely at the ballot box.

Ms Koike, 71, was dogged by questions about her university credentials and refused to address accusations that she is connected to a large real estate developer involved in several controversial projects. Mitsui Fudosan, the developer involved in the building projects, said in an e-mail that it had “no close relationship” with the governor and had not “been provided any special favours”.

Just as the Liberal Democrats stay in power despite low approval ratings, Ms Koike may have benefited from a feeling that there was no need to upset the apple cart at a time of relative prosperity.

Despite some widening inequality and pockets of poverty, “most middle-class citizens are satisfied with their lives in Tokyo”, said Mr Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science lecturer at Hosei University in Tokyo.

Although Ms Koike has not entirely delivered on promises to eliminate daycare waiting lists, reduce commuter train congestion and abolish overtime among municipal workers, she has used a budget surplus to provide subsidies for families with children and free tuition to private high schools in the city.


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