Renho’s Tokyo Gubernatorial Candidacy Inspires Excitement – and Racism

Renho’s Tokyo Gubernatorial Candidacy Inspires Excitement – and Racism

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Renho - Tokyo Governor's Race
Pictures: Renho official web site; Canva
A popular Japanese politician with Taiwanese roots made waves when she announced her bid for the governor's office of Tokyo. The response from her opponents was as predictable as it was tired.

As someone who loosely follows Japanese politics from the left, there isn’t a lot that happens that I can say truly excites me. Besides a brief period in the 2000s, the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power for decades. And no matter how badly they manage things, Japan’s political opposition rarely seems poised to capitalize.

But last month, longtime Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) Diet representative and leader Renho (蓮舫) made waves when she announced she would run as an independent candidate against current Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko (小池百合子). The move shook up Japanese politics and caught the ruling party off guard. It also launched a wave of racist accusations against Renho that likely won’t let up until July’s election.

Renho’s roots – and controversies

サッポロビール『黒ラベル』 CM 【藤井フミヤ・蓮舫】 1991/07

“生激論!黒ラベルシリーズ”17「浮気はしない」編

A young Renho in a commercial for Sapporo Black Label, circa 1991.

Born in 1967 in Tokyo, Saito Renho (齊藤 蓮舫) is the child of a Taiwanese businessman and a Japanese mother. Originally an entertainer, she got her start as a pinup model (グラビアアイドル; gravure idol) and commercial actress for Clarion Electronics and Sapporo Beer before becoming a TV announcer.

In 2004, Tezuka Yoshio invited the charismatic Renho to run for the national Diet as a representative of Tokyo under the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (民主党; Minshuto), which she won. That kickstarted her two-decades long political career, during which she briefly led the former Minshinto before joining the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP; 立件民主党, Rikken Minshuto) in 2017.

Policy-wise, Renho is firmly a part of Japan’s left wing. She opposes the ruling LDP’s push to revise Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which would enable Japan to engage proactively in armed conflict. She’s championed the de-nuclearization of Japan and has spoken in favor of progressive policies such as separate spousal surnames. She’s also grown more progressive on issues such as marriage equality, moving from an “undecided” position in 2016 to support in 2022.

The double-citizenship controversy

In 2016, Renho found herself at the center of controversy. Born to Taiwanese and Japanese parents, Renho had to choose between Taiwanese and Japanese citizenry before she turned 20. (Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship.) She chose Japanese citizenship and, according to her, officially forsook her Taiwanese citizen status.

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However, in 2016, some people claimed that Renho never officially renounced her Taiwanese citizenship. This turned out to be true and Renho had to apologize, saying she relied on her father to complete the procedure as she doesn’t speak Taiwanese Hokkien.

Renho tried to resolve the situation quickly, However, it grew complicated due to the status of Taiwan. In Japan, when resolving a dual citizenship issue, you can either submit an official revocation of citizenship certificate from the foreign government or submit a “declaration of selection” of Japanese citizenship.

To put a nail in this coffin, Renho received an official letter of revocation from Taiwan and attempted to submit it to the Meguro ward office in Tokyo. However, the office told her they couldn’t accept it. The reason? Japan has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan and doesn’t recognize it as a country independent from China. As a result, Renho had to submit a declaration of selection instead.

Despite all this, Renho’s political opponents continued to hammer her for referring to herself in past interviews as “Chinese” or “Taiwanese.” Renho has rebuffed the criticism. “I’ve always thought of myself as Japanese,” she’s said. “I’ve always honored my double-rooted identity as the child of a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother.” She also accused newspaper and magazine editors of distorting her words, saying she’s only talked about her Taiwanese “citizenship” as a thing of the past.

A well-timed run

Koike Yuriko
Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Despite the controversy, Renho is and remains extremely popular on the Japanese left. So it’s no surprise that her announcement that she’d run for Tokyo Governor in the July 2024 election was greeted with fanfare and a sense of excitement.

While she’s officially running as an unaffiliated candidate, both her current party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, as well as the Japanese Communist Party, actively support her candidacy. She’s one of the few politicians who could stand a real chance against Koike, who’s occupied the governor’s seat since 2016.

Renho’s decision is extremely well-timed, which is part of what’s generating so much excitement. The LDP is currently stinging from a string of electoral defeats in local elections, mostly stemming from a slush fund scandal that’s gravely tarnished its image. Its overall ratings are down, with polls showing voters gravitating to independent status or backing opposition parties.

NHK graph showing political party support over 2.5 years
Support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is below 30% for the first time in years. Most voters are gravitating towards independent status, with opposition parties gaining nominal ground.

In April, all three candidates endorsed by the LDP in local elections lost their bids. In May, their candidate for governor of Shizuoka went down in flames, as did their candidates for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. And just this week, at the top of June, the long-time LDP-endorsed mayor of Minato City in Tokyo lost to Seike Ai, who becomes the ninth woman to lead a ward in Tokyo.

Renho’s announcement threw the LDP brass for a loop. One official called it “a bolt from the blue.” Officials previously thought they could score an easy win backing Koike in the gubernatorial race. Now, they have a fight on their hands. Despite this, many in the LDP sound keen on backing Koike, given they have no strong candidate of their own.

Koike stunned into silence?

That leaves Koike in a right mess. A former member of the LDP, she ran for governor of Tokyo under the banner of her own party, the Tomin First (Tokyoites First) Party. However, despite distancing herself publicly from the LDP, her policies were never much different from theirs. Indeed, in May, she endorsed the LDP candidate for Tokyo.

But Koike, according to reports, still wants to remain at arm’s length from party political disputes. With Renho running on a platform of “opposition to the LDP & the ineffective Koike government,” accepting an LDP endorsement could associate Koike with the LDP’s string of scandals.

As a result, while insiders say Koike has already decided to run, she hasn’t made a public announcement yet. It’s no wonder. Her own political future now hangs in the balance.

“China’s candidate”?!

X post calling Renho the "Chinese Diet member".

With Renho taking a run at such a high-profile position, it’s no surprise her political opponents on the right would engage in smear tactics to take her down.

Within a day or two of her announcement, Chinese media covered her candidacy, referring to her as a “Diet member of Chinese heritage.” Which makes sense. China has never recognized Taiwan as an independent nation and considers it part of China.

Renho’s opponents had a field day with the reference. Matsumaru Makoto, a self-declared “conservative” politician who aims to “protect” Japan, called Renho “the Chinese Diet member recognized by China.” The tweet, which has over 26,000 likes, was just one of many that also brought up the dual-citizenship issue.

The line of attack is as predictable as it is tired. Instead of going after Renho’s policies – many of which are supported by the Japanese public at large – they attack her race, using it to cast aspersions on her loyalty to Japan.

Will these smears be effective? I doubt it. However, assuming Koike runs, Renho will have a fight on her hands. No matter how it ends, it promises to be one of the most exciting political races in Japan in a long time.

Sources

蓮舫. Wikipedia JP

「寝耳に水」蓮舫氏の出馬 岸田政権「ジ・エンド」を危ぶむ声. Mainichi Shimbun

【独自】「いいのよ、フフフ」小池百合子が「萩生田光一」必死の電話をシカトしていた…都知事選で「自民推薦」を決めかねて. Gendai Media

林官房長官、静岡県知事選の自民推薦候補敗北受け「今後の政権運営に生かす」. Sankei Shimbun

自民敗北、政権へ痛打 3補選に続き、野党勢い―静岡知事選. Jiji.com

東京・港区長選、5期務めた自民推薦の現職敗れる 清家愛氏が初当選. Asahi Shimbun

自民、都知事選で小池百合子氏と連携模索…「不戦敗」回避へ. Yomiuri Shimbun

小池百合子氏の応援候補が3連敗 目黒区長選と衆院東京15区補選に続き都議補選目黒区でも… Tokyo Shimbun

蓮舫氏「二重国籍問題」は、意外なほど複雑だ. Toyo Keizai

「小池百合子知事は機を見るに敏。寄ってこなくなる」 港区長選で敗れた自民都連のぼやき. Tokyo Shimbun

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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