TOKYO: Yuriko Koike is known as Japan’s Condi Rice or “Lipstick Ninja,” and is everyone’s favorite cosplaying politician. From journalist to minister and finally to governor of Tokyo, Koike is proving that with the right amount of support and resolve, nothing is impossible.
Koike has had a long, illustrious career and shows no signs of slowing down. She has served as a member of Japan’s House of Representatives, environment minister and minister of state for Okinawa and northern territories affairs for former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, and as minister of defense in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet.
She earned herself the moniker “Lipstick Ninja” when she joined a group of female candidates on the campaign trail of former Prime Minister Koizumi in September 2005 with the intention of “taking out” his political enemies. Flanked by such names as Satsuki Katayama, a model-turned-bureaucrat, and Makiko Fujino, the “Japanese Martha Stewart,” the media took to calling them Koizumi’s Assassins, or the Lipstick Ninjas.
Most famously, Koike was elected to the office of governor of Tokyo in 2016, the first woman ever to hold the post. However, what sets Koike apart from other Japanese politicians is her education: She studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo, graduating in sociology.
Koike spent five years in Cairo in the 1970s, a time she thinks of fondly. “It was a very rich experience. An unforgettable experience. I didn’t just learn Arabic, I learned about the lifestyle of the people there, about Islamic culture, and I found the experience to be very valuable.”
She utilized her language skills by becoming an interpreter and a journalist, famously interviewing Arab political figures such as Muammar Qaddafi and Yasser Arafat for Nippon TV. During her time as environment minister in the early 2000s, she used her Arabic once more when working with Arab nations, particularly Egypt, to improve environmental conditions.
After last week’s visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Japan for the G20 summit, Koike sat down with Arab News to speak about the future of female empowerment in the Japanese government, how the city is adapting to societal changes, and most important, how Saudi Arabia could learn from Tokyo’s experiences on both fronts.
As the first female governor of Tokyo, Koike believes that for Japan to grow further female empowerment is needed. “I believe it is indispensable to incorporate female ideas and female politics in order for society to become enriched,” she said.
Koike has long held the belief that women in Japan not only have a “glass ceiling” to contend with, but rather an “iron plate,” in that the challenge before them is greater, almost indestructible, because of traditional beliefs.
Koike ran for president of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2008, saying “I’m not Mrs. Thatcher, but what is needed is a strategy that advances a cause with conviction, clear policies and sympathy with the people.”
Despite coming third, Koike gained a loyal following with many Japanese women, especially for her efforts in bringing female empowerment forward in a typically male-dominated society.
According to the governor, 40% of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government staff members are female. Not only that, but 20% of all TMG staff are females in managerial positions. As for the members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly (responsible for enacting and amending prefectural ordinances, voting on administrative appointments made by the governor and approving the budget), 29 percent of those are female, the highest number in Japan. “And they are all elected,” Koike said.
An increase in the number of female assembly members has enabled them to enhance laws that were not taken seriously before, such as child-care policies and smoking prevention measures. Koike thinks that those things, which were ignored or taken lightly, have finally been improved.
“The most important thing I want to convey is that having a female governor, with all these female assembly members in Tokyo, has really helped decision-making and enriched the society of Tokyo,” she said.
Regarding women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia and the changes happening in the country under Vision 2030, Koike said she believes things are moving in the right direction. “The challenge in what is going on in Saudi Arabia is really meaningful to enrich the Saudi culture and Saudi society, to make it richer and more diverse.”
Speaking of Riyadh, Koike said she believes it can easily become a smart city on par with Tokyo. She says it has three things that are required for the development of a city. “As Saudi Arabia has a lot of natural resources, the nation can go in the direction in which Tokyo has been progressing. Saudi Arabia has the ability to meet the three pillars: safety, diversity and smart city technology.”
The governor also spoke about the preparations Tokyo is undergoing to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympic Games, and what Saudi Arabia could learn from the city’s experience.
“When the first Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964, our focus was on building venues, and facilities such as the Shinkansen (bullet train). This time around, we are putting more emphasis on making these Olympics more accessible and disability-friendly. So for our blind and deaf guests, or our wheelchair-bound guests, we want to create a city where they can comfortably live.
“There is another aspect to this, however: Japanese society is aging. The percentage of the Tokyo population over the age of 65 in 2015 stood at 22.7, projected to rise to 31 percent in 2050. In Saudi Arabia, the number was 3.0 percent in 2015, and will rise to 17.2 percent in 2050. So Saudi Arabia is going to age eventually. Our efforts to make the city more disability-friendly will eventually help our aging society a lot. I think Saudi Arabia can learn from this.”
Due to her achievements, Koike may come across as intimidating, but she definitely knows how to have fun. She has appeared in cosplay at several events, once as Sally from “Sally the Witch” and later, at the Ikebukuro Halloween Cosplay Festival in 2016, as Sapphire from “Princess Knight.”
Koike addressed the crowd at the opening ceremony, telling them that she was not embarrassed and was determined to pursue the role with all her heart. “Don’t feel ashamed. Get into your role,” she told them.
When asked about the costume, Koike said: “I did cosplay because I wanted to enjoy this popular subculture with the people of Tokyo, and other anime fans in the world, and share the fun of it.”
To close the interview, when asked if she might visit Saudi Arabia in cosplay, Governor Koike said she would think about it. “Insha’Allah,” she said, with a smile.