TOKYO – Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has won a second term to head the Japanese capital, propelled to an election victory Sunday by public support for her handling of the coronavirus crisis despite a recent rise in infections that has raised concerns of a resurgence of the disease.
In her victory speech, Koike, the first woman to lead Tokyo, pledged to continue to take measures to protect the city's 14 million people amid the pandemic, calling it her “most pressing task.”
“Now is a very important time to prepare for a possible second wave, and I will continue to firmly take steps,” she said.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK said its exit polls showed that 74% of respondents supported Koike, with 63% saying they approved of her handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Koike, 67, is a veteran conservative who has served in key Cabinet and ruling party posts, and is viewed as a potential candidate to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when his term ends in September 2021. For now, she says she’s focused on protecting the lives of the people of Tokyo, a megacity with a $1 trillion economy.
“The next four years is a crucial time for Japan's capital, with the Olympics and Paralympics coming up, and coronavirus measures are needed,” she said. “I'm fully committed to my duty as governor."
Tokyo's infections started to rebound in late June, with the city reporting 111 new cases on Sunday, topping 100 for a fourth straight day. New daily cases have spiked throughout Japan in recent weeks, with the country approaching 20,000 cases and 1,000 deaths.
Koike said, however, that another state of emergency nationwide or in Tokyo would be difficult because the economy had already been battered by seven weeks of restrictions in April and May. She instead pledged to balance disease prevention and the economy, while suggesting “pinpoint” measures in specific areas.
One area would be Tokyo's night entertainment districts linked to younger people, who have accounted for the majority of recent new cases.
A record 22 candidates ran in Sunday’s election.
Koike's challengers included popular actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto and veteran lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya. Yamamoto wanted to cancel the Tokyo Olympics — which were postponed from this summer to next summer due to the pandemic — and use the funds to help people hurt by the coronavirus crisis. Utsunomiya, known as the Bernie Sanders of Japan, called for better welfare support for a more inclusive and diverse society.
Koike's victory was widely expected, with a recent poll by the Mainichi newspaper having her leading her opponents by a wide margin.
Outside a polling station in downtown Tokyo, retiree Hidekazu Tamura said he voted for Koike because of her effort to secure the Olympics. “I say no to anyone who is against the Olympics,” he said.
Another voter, Yojiro Tsuchiya, said he didn't think Koike had addressed growing concerns about the latest jump in coronavirus infections. “I don’t think they have a clear grasp of the current situation,” he said, adding that he voted for Utsunomiya, who is pushing for more testing.
Koike also pledged to set up Tokyo's own version of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, she said Japan lacked an efficient crisis management system to deal with the pandemic.
Despite a growing call for a cancellation of the Olympic, Koike said she hoped to achieve the event “as proof of our victory against the coronavirus." She has tried to gain public support for a simpler version of the Tokyo Olympics since the games were postponed.
Though Koike has not fully delivered on promises to Tokyo residents to relieve congestion on commuter trains, ensure adequate availability of child and elder care facilities, and end overwork, even her critics have generally lauded her handling of the pandemic. That's in sharp contrast to Prime Minister Abe, who has been criticized for doing too little, too late.
As the pandemic deepened in the spring, Koike often upstaged fellow conservative Abe, whose approval ratings have plunged due to his handling of the crisis and its severe impact on the economy, on top of a slew of scandals.
A former TV newscaster, Koike is stylish and media savvy. She earned the nickname “Migratory Bird” for hopping between parties and forming new alliances — doing it at least seven times — a rarity among Japanese politicians, who are known for their loyalty to party factions.
Associated Press videojournalist Emily Wang contributed to this report.
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