Tokyo's new chief and the skeletons in his closet

NEWLY minted Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe faces not only the gargantuan task of getting the Japanese capital ready to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. But he is also likely to be busy fending off allegations against him, ranging from abuse of public funds to discrimination against women.

At his first press conference as governor, held last Wednesday, the academic-turned-politician, 65, vowed to spearhead efforts to produce the best-ever Olympics in history. That would require revamping the city's ageing communications network.

"Railways, subways and roads are not organically linked," he said, while pointing out the need to build bicycle tracks around the athletes' village and to introduce electric vehicles to the city.

On his first day at work last Wednesday, he was asked how it felt to sit in the governor's chair.

"I will probably hardly have time to sit in this chair. I want to go down to the ground," he told reporters at his seventh-floor office in central Tokyo.

He is fluent in English and French, and his first official outing will be to the ongoing Sochi Winter Olympics to get a first-hand feel of such international events and to pay courtesy calls on senior Olympic officials.

The former health minister's experience in national politics is expected to stand him in good stead when having to negotiate with the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on how to share construction costs for Olympic facilities, including a new national stadium.

The road to politics was a circuitous one for Mr Masuzoe.

He had to work his way through school after his family fell on hard times - his father died while he was a teenager.

He did well enough to get into Tokyo University, Japan's most prestigious college, and later embarked on a career teaching international politics.

At the same time, he became a popular commentator on political talk shows on television.

The outspoken Mr Masuzoe eventually left teaching and became even more active on TV, appearing in variety shows as well.

Seeking to field candidates well-known to voters, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) recruited him for the 2001 Upper House elections, which he successfully contested.

But Mr Masuzoe may not find it easy to deal with Prime Minister Abe, who was initially unhappy about his LDP backing the former minister in the gubernatorial election.

Mr Abe has not forgotten that Mr Masuzoe was sacked by the LDP in 2010 for openly criticising the party leadership and wanting to form his own political group.

After leaving the LDP, Mr Masuzoe established and headed the New Renaissance Party (NRP).

Apparently not thrilled at the idea of remaining an opposition politician, he decided not to run again for a seat in last year's Upper House election in July and left the NRP. He ran for the Tokyo post as an independent.

But last week, he was repeatedly quizzed at his daily press conferences about the dubious finances of the NRP.

He is alleged, while he was NRP leader, to have taken 250 million yen (S$3.1 million), received under a government scheme to subsidise the administrative costs of political parties, to pay back bank loans taken out by his party.

Mr Masuzoe has denied any wrongdoing but his opponents are expected to pursue the allegations. Incidentally, his predecessor Naoki Inose was forced to quit after barely a year in office for taking 50 million yen in cash from a scandal-tainted hospital operator.

Meanwhile, a sexist remark that Mr Masuzoe made in 1989 to a men's magazine has also come back to haunt him.

He told the magazine that women could not assume high political office as they were "not normal when having a period" and therefore could not be trusted to make critical decisions like whether or not to go to war.

A women's grassroots organisation that campaigned against his candidacy in the Tokyo election over that 1989 remark has said it will continue to stage protests against the governor.

Once a favourite for prime minister in public opinion polls, Mr Masuzoe surprisingly has quite a few skeletons in his closet.

He was known to have refused the request of Kitakyushu City, his birthplace, to contribute to the maintenance of his elder sister who was on government welfare.

The new governor, who fathered three children with two lovers, is being sued for maintenance payments for one of the children who has a disability.

He is on his third marriage - to a former secretary, with whom he has two children.

His two earlier marriages, the first to a French woman he met while studying in France and the second to a civil servant who is now an Upper House lawmaker, ended in divorce. The second marriage broke down irretrievably after only three months.

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