CAIRO - 9 October 2019: Yuriko Koike landed for the first time on Egyptian soil in 1971, when she arrived to study Arabic language at the American University in Cairo (AUC) before enrolling in Cairo University’s Faculty of Literature, from which she graduated in 1976.
A veteran politician, Koike went on to become a member of parliament in her native Japan from 1993 to 2016; and was then appointed Minister of Defense.
Today, Koike serves as the governor of Tokyo, and is the first Japanese woman to assume the position. In an interview with Egypt Today, the 64-year-old politician looks back on the years she lived in Egypt which she describes as “an inspiration, and an eye-opener to another part of the world”, and how she yearns to return to visit one day, and considers Egypt second home country. Koike speaks to Egypt Today about her election to Tokyo governor, education in both Egypt and Japan, the empowerment of Egyptian women and 2020 Olympics preparations.
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike - Photo provided by Koike's office
Your bid for governor was supported by 3 million votes. What is the reason behind this huge support for a female candidate in Japan?
I raised a slogan of “great Tokyo reforms” seeking to maintain transparency values in management, guarantee access of information to everyone and strengthen administration of metropolitan government by working and collaborating with citizens.
That’s why I gained great sympathy from Tokyo citizens, and assumed the position in 2016.
We aim to build a new Tokyo by achieving three themes: “safe city,” where the city becomes more secured and safe; “diverse city,” where everyone can play a role, and a “smart city,” where it becomes an environmentally-advanced and an open global city to the whole world.
The source of activeness and vitality in the city is the people; and since I assumed the position of Tokyo governor, I’ve worked hard to highlight the role of the people, and to benefit from the interrelationship between its residents to achieve growth in the city and Japan as a whole.
How do you evaluate your three years in office and your achievements so far?
We took measures to resolve the problem of waiting lists in nurseries in Japan, including efforts to strengthen childcare services and create an environment in which children can be both raised and work together.
Our initiative “Life After the Age 100” provides working spaces and knowledge acquisition for the elderly; in addition, we’ve worked hard to set laws aiming at achieving the principles of respect for human rights as set in the Olympic Charter, and to place regulations to prevent passive smoking.
Regarding the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we seek to excel in international competitions, so that Tokyo can make another leap forward as an advanced nation.
Choosing to study abroad, in Egypt, was considered a rare and difficult decision for a Japanese woman to take at that time. Were you influenced by your father who, as is known, believed in a strong connection between Japan and the Arab region?
My father, who worked in foreign trade, has always been keen to emphasize the importance of the Middle East and the Arab region to the world. I decided to study at Cairo University after reading the “Middle East History Dictionary,” which I found on the shelves of my father’s library. Of course, Egypt and the Arab region are very important for both the world and Japan.
The time you studied in Egypt was known as a golden era for feminist groups defending women’s rights, witnessing many laws granting women rights in marriage, divorce and child custody. How do you see the situation of Egyptian women today?
In the 2018 Gender Gap Index, released by the World Economic Forum, Egypt ranked 135th out of 144 countries, coming behind Japan, while Egyptian women’s participation in parliament exceeded that of women in Japan. Following the unrest in Egypt during the Arab Spring, a new constitution and parliamentary elections were held, in which 89 out of 596 members of the parliament were elected in 2015. This is an unprecedented phenomenon, and I think it is a manifestation of awareness that making the most of women’s forces will contribute to the enrichment of society.
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike - Reuters
How do you think Egypt, which has introduced Japanese “Tokkatsu” or special activities in its schools, can learn and benefit from the Japanese education system at all levels?
When President Sisi visited Japan in 2016, he showed great interest in the Japanese education system. I know that there are some elementary schools now in Cairo that teach children the essence of Japanese education that develops social behavior. For example, everyone here in Japan is cleaning classrooms after the end of the school day. This seems to be a surprise to many Egyptians, but for us it is self-evident because we were brought up this way since childhood. In fact, I think it is very important and useful [for children] to learn discipline as part of the educational curricula, in addition to other sciences.
Education is a “long-term” project, and it takes time to reap its fruit. It must therefore be done carefully and patiently, without rushing the results. I believe that focusing on educating children in Egypt is the fastest way to develop the country.
Egypt is building smart and sustainable cities. As Tokyo governor and former environment minister, what kind of cooperation can there be between Egypt and Japan to promote waste disposal measures and energy-saving cities?
The main reason for the success of the waste disposal work carried out by governments is the cooperation of citizens. Only when everyone abides by the rules can we keep the city clean and we can properly recycle and dispose of waste. I think it is important and necessary for citizens to treat it as one of the problems that concern them, and not to leave it all to government only. In Tokyo, we teach students how to separate and sort garbage. Sometimes, I go to school myself and talk to children about the garbage problem and we think together. As part of the garbage schooling process, primary school children learn how to keep the city clean by collecting garbage together. I think it is important to start teaching children about this, because they convey what they have learned to their families after they return home.
There is a predication that in 2050 the volume and quantity of plastic waste in the oceans will exceed that of fish. Therefore, in order to preserve the beauty and cleanliness of the seas, [Tokyo] encourages the reduction of the use of disposable plastics. By 2030, we aim to reduce 40 percent of the amount of plastic waste discharged from homes, offices and large companies that are disposed of by incineration, in order to reduce single-use of plastics such as plastic bags and others.
I am well aware that Egypt, as an agricultural country, has a pressing problem of rice straw. So, I think using rice straw as bio- fuels rather than just burning it will contribute to measures to reduce environmental pollution and also reduce waste.
Environmental protection measures, including waste reduction measures, are common to major cities such as Tokyo and Cairo. Therefore, I believe that sharing knowledge, experiences and different systems between cities and each other can be an added value that can benefit everyone.
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike - Reuters
Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Games, which you seek to make a success next year. What are the biggest challenges you face while preparing for this major sports event?
First, the success of the Paralympics. Tokyo is the first city in the world to host the Summer Paralympics twice. For me, without the success of the Paralympics, there will be no success for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
In Tokyo, we started a Paralympic Games program called “No Limits Challenge” aiming to attract bigger audiences to the Paralympic Games, where they receive special passports that collect stamps each time they watch a game, and then receive souvenirs according to the number of stamps. In addition, we launched a new program called Team Beyond, to increase the number of people supporting the Paralympics, with more than 1.28 million individuals and businesses now members of the program.
We also held a roundtable conference to promote the success of the Paralympic Games and promote the idea of a street and barrier free city that impedes the movement of people with special needs. A number of academic experts, athletes with special needs and people who have a prominent role in society from various fields such as sports, arts, music and other fields have been appointed as ambassadors to support the Paralympic Games, and promote the idea of street and barrier-free city.
We will continue to revitalize the Paralympic Games in the future, and work to make the halls and stadiums where the competitions of these games filled with fans, and I hope that we can create a ‘symbiotic and integrated community’, on the occasion of the Paralympic Games. We seek to achieve our goal of removing all barriers and making Tokyo free of barriers and making it a society where everyone who lives or comes to visit can enjoy living in comfort and luxury.
Second are the measures to overcome the heat. The 1964 Tokyo Games were held in October, but this time they will be held between July and September. So far, we have worked to ensure the trees will provide enough shade and we are working to check the light system, distribution of hand fans and neck cooling packs, as well as measures to install auxiliary equipment such as umbrellas and tents.
Third is ensuring smooth movement during the tournament. Smooth transfer for players and participants in the tournament, while maintaining everyday activities, is necessary to guarantee successful games. We are currently promoting for the idea of “Smooth Biz,” which integrates efforts to reduce congestion inside trains during peak times by encouraging telework etc., and to manage transport needs
Tell us about the new concept of 3Rs you plan to be adopt in the tournament
The term 3Rs refers to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
When thinking about the waste problem, I believe it’s essential that we feel guilty toward the wasteful use of resources. There is a word in Japanese called “Mottainai” which means that it is unfortunate that resources are wasted instead of being utilized.
At the Olympic Games, we want to share the concept of “Mottainai” with the whole world, and encourage audiences to sort and dispose of trash well in the designated spots. These are unprecedented efforts in such huge events.
Tokyo is prone to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes. What preparations have you taken to reduce negative consequences of such disasters?
Legislation is in place to ensure that buildings are established with earthquake resistance in mind. This includes the “Law on the Determination of Construction Standards”, defining the criteria for earthquake resistance.
In addition, because the impact of climate change on the globe is currently very severe, Tokyo has spent a lot of money and has taken many measures to reduce this impact from both hardware and software perspectives. From the hardware perspective, we have promoted anti-seismic measures such as strengthening water flow control gates and arches and strengthening and uplifting dams and tsunami barriers in order to prevent flood damage from the tsunami that accompanies earthquakes.
Efforts are also being made to make buildings along emergency roads earthquake resistant, to ensure the passage of rescue and ambulances, to encourage removal of utility poles on roadside, and to develop underground reservoirs as measures to reduce flood damage.
From a software perspective, the Tokyo Metropolitan Disaster Prevention Information Website is used to convey disaster information in multiple languages including Japanese and English.
Learning how to prevent disasters through education is also important. Since floods have recurred widely throughout Japan recently, we have created a kit called “Tokyo My Timeline” as a tool to confirm Tokyo residents’ preparedness for flood damage. Each person can predetermine the actions to be taken in preparation for evacuation in chronological order so as not to cause chaos in the event of a disaster.
As the first female governor of Tokyo, I am working on a range of measures that take women’s perspectives into account. We are working on a disaster prevention book entitled “Disaster Readiness Guide: Prepare Yourself and Your Family” from a woman’s perspective, as well as training women cadres in disaster prevention. It has also persuaded the government of Japan to lift the ban on domestic production and sales of liquid milk for infants, which is very useful in times of disaster.