The Tokyo gubernatorial election campaign kicked off Thursday, with three main contenders vying for the post:

Naoki Inose

Thanks to the backing of former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, Inose appears to be the front-runner in the gubernatorial race.

Before serving as vice governor under Ishihara for more than five years, Inose was the right-hand man for another celebrated political figure — Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The award-winning nonfiction author was appointed to Koizumi’s panel on privatizing four road-related public corporations in 2001. The nomination of Inose, 66, a prominent advocate of decentralization, stirred debate even within Koizumi’s then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but the prime minister brushed off criticism and went ahead with the move.

Inose in 2007 became the first person in 58 years to be named Tokyo vice governor without any prior experience as a politician or a bureaucrat. But he quickly adjusted to his new role as Ishihara’s sidekick that year, working in tandem with the Tokyo don to halt the planned construction of lavish apartments in Chiyoda Ward for Upper House lawmakers. The site required Ishihara’s approval before the project could begin.

During the March 2011 disasters, Inose had a major hand in dispatching Tokyo’s rescue team to devastated Miyagi after receiving messages via Twitter from residents in the prefecture stranded in a local public hall.

Some of the more unique ideas he has pitched in the past include round-the-clock services for the Yamanote Line that loops around the capital.

Unlike Ishihara, who was notorious for his controversial and provocative remarks, Inose has managed to remain relatively scandal-free during his stint as vice governor. But he did cause a minor controversy when it was revealed in 2007 that a brand new private toilet was installed in his office at a cost of some ¥4.5 million. Members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly grilled Inose over the lavish expenditure, but he simply ignored their outrage.

Known as a chain smoker, Inose has taken jabs at the policies of his gubernatorial opponent, Shigefumi Matsuzawa, to ban smoking in public areas. As Kanagawa governor, Matsuzawa managed to get passed an ordinance in the prefecture to prohibit smoking in public facilities, including hospitals, schools and government buildings.

“He doesn’t smoke. I am different. Separating smokers and nonsmokers (should be promoted). Each individual should be able to live the way they want,” Inose told reporters in early November.

Despite his smoking habit, however, Inose still completed the Tokyo Marathon in March in 6 hours and 40 minutes.

The Nagano native had originally hoped to study medicine at an undergraduate level in Tokyo, but after failing the entrance exam, he graduated from Shinshu University’s Faculty of Humanities in Nagano.

Shigefumi Matsuzawa

Though Inose appears to be the front-runner, Shigefumi Matsuzawa may have the most colorful background out of all the candidates.

Before serving as governor of Kanagawa, Matsuzawa, 54, was one of the up-and-coming stars of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan along with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, national policy minister Seiji Maehara and industry minister Yukio Edano.

Matsuzawa was the first of the group to take a stab at a top position in the DPJ, running in the party’s 1999 presidential election but losing out to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Matsuzawa pondered running again in the DPJ’s 2002 presidential race but withdrew and instead supported Noda, who eventually lost out to another ex-prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.

After working in the United States as a staffer for former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs and U.S. Rep. Beverly Byron in the 1980s, Matsuzawa studied at the elite Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. In 1987, he became the then-youngest member elected to the Kanagawa Prefectural Assembly at age 29.

During his years in the Diet, he led bipartisan efforts to privatize the state-run Japan Post together with Koizumi. The two coauthored “Yusei Mineika Ron” (“The Theory on Privatizing Japan Post”) in 1999.

After serving three terms in the House of Representatives and eight years as Kanagawa governor, Matsuzawa in March last year announced his candidacy in Tokyo’s most recent gubernatorial race. But he withdrew two weeks later after Ishihara revealed his intention to run for a fourth term, which he won handily.

Since then, Matsuzawa has been lecturing at Tsukuba University as a visiting professor and has also signed with entertainment conglomerate Yoshimoto Creative Agency Co. He subsequently appeared in a host of TV programs along with popular comedians, which may have boosted his image among younger voters.

On Noda, another alumni of the Matsushita school, Matsuzawa has said the prime minister “is trusted by a lot of younger politicians. . . . I respect his ways as a politician.”

The Kanagawa native lists marathon running as one of his hobbies, but was also named to Kanagawa’s prefectural high school rugby team while he was a senior at Keio High School.

Kenji Utsunomiya

Both Inose and Matsuzawa are considered heirs to Ishihara’s policies, but Kenji Utsunomiya, a former president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, is the antithesis of everything the hawkish governor stood for.

Tokyo is “full of issues that have turned sour due to the top-down approach taken by the previous governor,” the lead message on Utsunomiya’s website states. During a debate among election candidates Tuesday, Utsunomiya awarded Ishihara’s governance a measly 10 out of 100 points and criticized his impulsive decision-making, such as the plan to purchase the Senkaku islets.

Utsunomiya instead has the support of former DPJ Prime Minister Kan, since the two agree on nuclear-free policies.

A man of effort who comes from a deprived family, Utsunomiya grew up in Ehime and Oita prefectures before settling in Kumamoto. His father was a disabled war veteran who turned to farming after the war.

“My father would wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. to begin working, and would only stop after the stars came out again,” he recalled in an interview with a magazine six years ago.

Utsunomiya was accepted to the University of Tokyo but quit after passing his bar exam in 1968, after studying painstakingly for about 100 hours a week beforehand.

As a lawyer, the 65-year-old has specialized on poverty-related cases, including assisting debtors to overcome the burden of multiple loans. Utsunomiya served as president of the JFBA from 2010 to 2011. During his stint he quickly established a committee to address poverty-related issues.

In addition to his duties as a lawyer, he served as honorary mayor of a makeshift “village” in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park in 2008, which sheltered underemployed temp workers.

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