After Covid and Olympics, Tokyo’s first female governor wins third term

Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo, at an election campaign rally in Tokyo, Japan
The Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, wins a third term [Getty Images]

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has won a third consecutive term in Sunday's gubernatorial election, securing her position for the next four years.

Ms Koike received more than 2.9 million votes - or 42.8% of the votes - in Sunday's election, beating her opponents by a wide margin.

Her victory will be a relief for struggling Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who backed the 71-year-old in her contest as an independent candidate.

Ms Koike became Tokyo's first female governor in 2016, and won her second term in 2020.

The conservative governor successfully guided Japan's most populus city through the Covid-19 pandemic and its delayed summer Olympics in 2021, but also weathered controversies regarding her university credentials and infrastructure projects under her governorship.

Declaring victory, Ms Koike said her main challenge was "how to proceed with digital transformation as industries have changed significantly."

She said she would consolidate efforts to keep improving Tokyo, including "the environment for women's empowerment", which she said was "insufficient [in Japan] compared to other parts of the world."

Ms Koike's appointment makes her one of the most powerful women in Japan's male-dominated politics. She told the BBC that she won her first term "because I [am] a woman".

"People prefer to have something new, or somebody new, in order to change society," she said then.

With Tokyo accounting for about 11% of the country's population and contributing to nearly 20% of its total GDP, it also puts her in charge of the city’s budget, which climbed to a staggering 16.55 trillion yen ($100bn; £80bn) this fiscal year.

She will now also have to work hard to improve Tokyo’s shockingly low birth rate, which came up as a major issue during this campaign. At 0.99 - less than one child per woman aged between 15 and 49 - it is the lowest of any region nationwide.

In all, 56 contenders were vying to lead the sprawling capital and a number of other cities in the prefecture. Voter turnout on Sunday was more than 60%, up from 55% in the 2020 race.

Observers had initially expected the election to be a neck-to-neck race between Ms Koike and prominent opposition politician Renho Saito.

Unexpectedly, Shinji Ishimaru, an independent candidate and the former mayor of Akitakata, a town in Hiroshima prefecture, placed second, a position that was long thought to be guaranteed for Ms Renho.

Ms Renho, 56, supported by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), came in third instead.

Mr Ishimaru, 41, was relatively unknown in Tokyo before the official campaign began.

His success is thought to be down to his appeal among young voters. During the election campaign, he focused on boosting his profile by reaching out to his large social media following.

As a former banker, he also focused on advancing the economy and industry of Tokyo.

After the polls closed, he told his supporters, "I did all I could", alluding to the fact that he had no particular party affiliation, unlike the two main contenders.

Tokyo gubernatorial election candidate and former mayor of Akitakata city of Hiroshima prefecture Shinji Ishimaru delivers a speech during an election campaign in Tokyo
Mr Ishimaru mobilised young voters through a large online following [Getty Images]

Who is Yuriko Koike?

Yuriko Koike started her career as a journalist, working as a television news anchor before moving into politics in the early 1990s.

But it was not until 2016 that she came to true national prominence after winning the governorship of Tokyo for the first time. She was not the official candidate of LDP, but still managed to win comfortably, taking more than 2.9 million votes to become the first woman in the role.

"I will lead Tokyo politics in an unprecedented manner, a Tokyo you have never seen," Ms Koike promised supporters on election night.

She officially left the LDP in 2017 to set up her own political party, though she retains the support of many in the party – who gave her their backing in the 2024 race.

Yuriko Koike campaigning 2017
Yuriko Koike became Tokyo's first ever female governor in 2016 [Getty Images]

Ms Koike vowed to focus on local issues during her term, including tackling overcrowding on public transport, as well as the culture of overworking in the city. But it was global issues that came to dominate her time in office.

The emergence of Covid-19 forced Tokyo to delay its summer Olympics, planned for 2020. Ms Koike won a second term that year after her successful handling of the pandemic, and garnered further praise for managing the delayed Olympics, held in the city in 2021 in the shadow of the coronavirus.

Ms Koike, however has not escaped scandal. An allegation that she never graduated from Cairo University – first reported during her first term – has never quite died away. Despite repeated denials from her and a statement confirming her graduation from the university itself, reports that she falsified her graduation documents still persisted during her try at a third gubernatorial term.

Opponents also criticised her for failing to follow through on her pledges in Tokyo. The trains remain overcrowded and overwork culture remains a problem, they say.

Renho waving on the campaign trail
Renho stood as an independent against Ms Koike [Getty Images]

Of her 55 rival candidates, it had been expected Ms Renho would be Ms Koike's main opponent.

The former upper house member was backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, as well as the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

Ms Renho left the CDP before official campaigning started on June 20. She lost her Upper House seat when she filed her candidacy.

She rose to lead the centre-left group in 2016 as its first ever female head, but resigned a year later over poor results in Tokyo’s prefectural election.

Japanese media projected the race as a proxy war between national parties, as the conservative incumbent was challenged by the left-leaning opposition politician.

The gubernatorial election also took place amid a climate of general mistrust towards politics. Critics say this is linked in part to the economic difficulties of the Japanese followed by an end of the long historical period of deflation, and the weakening of the yen.