As a schoolgirl in Kobe, Yuriko Koike took an interest in a volume that her father, a trader in the oil business who often traveled to the Arab World, kept on his bookshelf. It was an edition of the Middle East Almanac, which she proceeded to devour from cover to cover. In 1972, with the encouragement of her parents, she took an unlikely step for a young Japanese woman: at age 21, she boarded a plane for Cairo, where she enrolled in the Arabic language program at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Thus began a journey that would bring good fortune to Egypt and Japan. A former journalist who went on to serve as a member of parliament for twenty-four years and stints as defense minister and environment minister, Koike in 2016 became the first woman elected governor of Tokyo. In all her positions she has continuously strived to further understanding between Japan and the Middle East. “The strong relationship I’ve been able to help build between Japan and Egypt is my repayment for the kindness I received in Egypt,” she told the Cairo Review in an email interview.
Koike, 64, credits her experiences in Cairo for giving her deeper knowledge of politics and culture in the Middle East as well as a “bird’s eye” view of the world that shaped her outlook as a Japanese decision-maker. At AUC, she particularly loved “the exchanges I had with my classmates—being able to interact with people from around the world, such as researchers on the Middle East from America, British pastors, Pakistani diplomats, and others.” After completing her language studies, Koike then enrolled at Cairo University, where she earned a degree in sociology in 1976. Living in Cairo through the October War in 1973 left a lasting impression on her. “As a student from Japan, a country that had enjoyed peace since the end of World War II, I was unfamiliar with war,” she recalled. “The Middle East has experienced so much bloodshed, and I pray that the region can return to peace.”
It wasn’t long before Koike was covering Middle East conflicts as a journalist for Japanese media organizations such as Nippon TV and Japan TV. She scored interviews with the likes of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi; thanks in part to her Arabic language skills (she’s also fluent in English), she won the Japanese female broadcaster of the year award in 1990 for her coverage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Koike’s high profile as a respected TV journalist helped her win a term in the upper house of Japan’s Diet in 1992 before capturing the first of eight elections to the lower House of Representatives the following year. She served as environment minister from 2003 to 2006 and briefly as defense minister in 2007. In those roles, she cites her Middle East experience in policies such as supporting Egypt’s efforts to improve air and water quality, and sending Japanese peacekeepers to the Golan Heights. She proposed that the Japanese prime minister open his official residence for an iftar meal during Ramadan every year, a practice which has continued for a decade. This year as governor, she hosted an iftar at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices.
Koike is a strong advocate for the 2016 Egypt-Japan Education Partnership, which will send twenty-five hundred Egyptian students to study in Japan in the next five years and introduce Japanese learning concepts into Egyptian schools. The two countries collaborated in the 2010 launch of the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology, a new research institution in Alexandria. Japan provided a $760 million development loan to cover the costs for constructing the new Grand Egyptian Museum. (The Cairo Opera House, which opened in 1988, was a gift from the Japanese government.) Recently, Japan announced an $18 million grant for the construction of a children’s hospital in Cairo.
The governor of Tokyo, one of the world’s most populous cities with 13.7 million residents (and most livable, according to Monocle magazine), is known for her love of anime, baseball, and her Yorkshire terrier, So-chan. Koike has a reputation as a fighter, once comparing herself to Joan of Arc, and won her bid to become governor in a landslide without receiving the endorsement of her party. Public approval ratings nearing 90 percent recently led the Financial Times to call her the most powerful woman in the country and predict that “Koike’s blend of charisma, conservatism, and civic populism could yet make her Japan’s next prime minister.”
During her gubernatorial campaign, Koike vowed to promote better conditions for women including daycare and work-life balance, and “bring happiness” to Japan’s capital. “I aim to create a ‘New Tokyo,’ what I call ‘three cities in one,’” she told the Cairo Review. “I want Tokyo to be a safe city where people feel more secure, more at ease, and can live more vibrant lives; a diverse city where everyone can actively participate in society and lead fulfilling lives; and a smart city that is open to the world, and a leader in the fields of the environment, international finance, and business.”
High on Koike’s agenda is Tokyo’s preparations to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. “The world’s eyes will be on Tokyo,” she said. “I want to use this opportunity to enhance Tokyo’s presence in the world, and make Tokyo a city where every citizen can build a bright future.” She intends to use the spotlight to showcase how Tokyo is handling urban issues such as social welfare, the environment, and community development, and offer Tokyo’s experience, technology, and expertise to major cities around the world facing similar urban problems. Koike leaves little doubt that she is ready for another challenge. “As the head of the host city, I am leading preparations with the determination to make the Tokyo Games the best Olympic event ever,” she said.
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