“I’m extremely pleased that exchange between Japan and the EU will be strengthened in a variety of fields”

Holding to her convictions

Governor Yuriko Koike

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

Since taking office in July 2016, Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike, has proved herself to be a politician committed to doing what’s best for the citizens of her city. She has postponed the move of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market to Toyosu over concerns that contaminated soil at this new location could pose health risks. She has also taken steps to control the ballooning budget of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Before becoming governor, Koike served as minister of the environment under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and as minister of defence in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government. She sat down with Eurobiz Japan to speak about her studies in Egypt, her influences, and her goals for transforming Tokyo into a safer, smarter and more diverse city.


Could you tell me a little about your studies in Cairo?

I had wanted to visit the Arab world since I was in high school. When I found out that the UN was adding Arabic as one of its official languages, I became interested in learning about the nations where it was spoken. My father was a businessman, and since he often travelled to the Arab world, I never really thought of it as somewhere particularly far away.

During my time at university, I moved to Egypt and started studying Arabic. My mother told me that I shouldn’t come back to Japan until I graduated, so that’s what I did. I stayed in Cairo until I graduated. Japan is a very peaceful country; but in that region, wars are so frequent that when someone says, “the war”, you need to ask which one. In a sense, the most important thing that I experienced there was seeing how intense international situations could be — something I never could have experienced in post-war Japan.

How would you say that experience has shaped your perspective and your work life?

It allowed me to see the world from a bird’s eye view, which is something that has helped me in my roles as a member of the Diet and, before that, as a news anchor on economics. Looking at the big picture, it was an excellent reference point. Since I was young, I’ve been connected with that region, and those experiences have become a major asset for me.

And now as governor of Tokyo, I’m glad people from many different countries are visiting us. I’m very much looking forward to having even larger numbers of tourists come from the Middle East, as well as the US and Asia, especially for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

How will the city deal with the greater influx of tourists to Japan?

Although we may not be aware of it, Japan has many signs that are only in Japanese. As large numbers of people from many different countries come to Tokyo, I want them to know where they are, how to get to the hospital, how to change trains. So we’ve turned to IT for solutions. Someone from overseas who arrives at Haneda airport or Narita airport can download an app for their smartphones — which they’re already carrying with them — that will allow them to see information in their own language. The foundations for this have already been laid.

Who have your influences been?

For myself personally, people like Osamu Tezuka and Walt Disney. Animated films make a deep impression on children’s minds.

Thinking of European influences, I’d have to say Mrs Thatcher. Her “Big Bang” [of sudden deregulation] brought an ailing UK back to life in a big way. There is a lot to learn from the many things Mrs Thatcher revolutionised. She is famous for saying that one needs convictions rather than consensus. I think that to lead people well, to guide Tokyo in one direction, I need to hold to my convictions — and have the ability to persuade people of the value of those convictions.

After becoming the first female governor of Tokyo, what are some of the obstacles and challenges that you continue to face in Japan’s male-dominated political context?

With regard to Japan’s national government, I think there is still an inadequate representation of women as Cabinet ministers. We also have yet to ensure a sufficient representation of female politicians. While I’ve been a minister myself several times, ministers are selected by the prime minister, who is, of course, male.

In the six months since I was elected Tokyo’s first female governor, I have not experienced any problems because of my gender. For example, in ensuring the safety of Tokyo, it’s irrelevant whether the governor is male or female. I was the minister of defence, and gender was mostly irrelevant — the job was to protect the country and protect Tokyo.

Roughly half of the population of Japan, and of Tokyo, is female, and I’d like to do more to help women use their strengths. And since the greater share of care for children and for elderly parents falls to women, more needs to be done in order to ease those burdens.

What are your goals for Tokyo?

I think there are four important factors that Tokyo requires: people, things, cash, and info. And to take these to the next level, I’m working to create a Tokyo that is three cities in one. The first is a safe and secure city. Whether that means from earthquakes or terrorism, becoming resilient in times of crisis is one aspect of this.

The second is a diverse city. I want to make Tokyo both lively and liveable for people with disabilities, and a place where women can use their strengths. Diversity is also an important element [as care-givers come from overseas to] help us to raise our children and take care of our elderly. And, as I said before, I’d like to make full use of IT to have multilingual assistance available for everyone to experience Tokyo’s strengths.

The third is a smart city. This is about becoming a leading city in the area of finance, and especially with regard to the environment.

Could you give me some specific details about how you plan to make Tokyo smarter?

We have learned from France, for example, about making plastic bags illegal, or to make it so that you have to pay for them. This is a policy that I’ve wanted to enact since I was minister for the environment. There’s also responsible forestry. Wood from Tokyo’s forests is being used in many ways. In the Tama area, we have lots of forestland, and as we conduct regular thinning of these forests, we can put the lumber to good use.

One thing I remember the former mayor of London, Mr Livingston, did was to have a campaign where people could receive energy-saving lightbulbs by handing in their incandescent light bulbs. Similar to this, it is my desire to have Tokyo switch to LEDs so that we can reduce CO2 emissions and conserve energy. And we’d also like to make use of hydrogen. We’ll be using hydrogen fuel cells in vehicles and operating fuel-cell buses by the time of the Olympics and Paralympics.

As we anticipate the conclusion of an EU–Japan free trade agreement, how do you plan to make Tokyo friendlier for businesses to come here and stay here?

I’m extremely pleased that exchange between Japan and the EU will be strengthened in a variety of fields. Tokyo will be glad to welcome those connected with European businesses. We’ve already established a one-stop service centre to help with the registration of businesses and to go through the regulations they will need to know when launching in Japan — in the same way this is handled in other countries. So, I think the only thing left for them is to come to Tokyo and get started. I believe that the greater Tokyo area represents a third of consumption in Japan, so it should be easy for businesses to build their bases here. And there are a lot of good human resources here as well. 

“to lead people well … I need to hold to my convictions”