Campaigning for the Tokyo gubernatorial election officially kicked off Thursday with 16 candidates set to battle over national-level issues ranging from energy policy to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

According to the metropolitan election board, 16 people filed to run in the race and will vie for the votes of 10.82 million residents.

“An important opportunity has come to make a choice on the prospects of this country, Tokyo and the way we live,” former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa said in front of City Hall after filing his candidacy.

Hosokawa, 76, who has the backing of popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, 72, told an audience of about 100 that the government’s plans to restart dozens of idled nuclear reactors is what prompted him to run for governor because the capital lies within striking distance (100 to 200 km) of an atomic power plant crisis.

Koizumi, who became an anti-nuclear convert due to the Fukushima crisis, said he believes Hosokawa can change the future of Japan.

“This gubernatorial election is rare in terms of its chances of affecting national politics. . . . If Hosokawa wins, he will surely be able to change the direction of Japan, which has been considered unable to survive without nuclear power,” Koizumi said.

Japan imports nearly all of its energy needs.

Experts say the Tokyo election will have an impact on national politics, especially the fate of pro-nuclear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose administration is racing to get the nation’s 48 viable reactors certified as safe under new standards.

“The result could be a barometer of whether the Abe administration will be able to remain in power until the next national election,” said political science professor Yoshiaki Kobayashi of Keio University.

“Even though the administration enjoys a high public support rate, some candidates in local elections (backed by the ruling bloc) have had a hard time,” Kobayashi said, referring to mayoral elections in Kawasaki, the city of Fukushima and Nago, Okinawa, where LDP-backed candidates lost, and the close mayoral victory in Kobe.

In the Tokyo election, triggered by December’s resignation of Gov. Naoki Inose over a dubious loan, the LDP and New Komeito, its junior partner in the ruling coalition, are effectively backing former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, 65, who is running as an independent.

A recent poll by the weekly magazine Sunday Mainichi shows the former Upper House member leading with 44.1 percent support, followed by Hosokawa and Kenji Utsunomiya, 67, former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. The survey covered 1,018 people. No margin of error was given.

Rattling off his policies, Masuzoe said he would like to hold “the best Olympics and Paralympics ever” in 2020 and promote the capital to the world.

He also vowed to take measures to prepare Tokyo for natural disasters, including by improving its aging infrastructure, and strengthening the welfare system by making the most of his experience as health minister and looking after his mother.

Hosokawa, a former governor of Kumamoto, promised to host a “simple and graceful” Olympics in 2020 and called for hosting the games jointly with disaster-hit municipalities in Tohoku, which is struggling to recover from the March 11, 2011 mega-quake and tsunami.

Lawyer Utsunomiya, who lost to Inose in the last gubernatorial election in 2012, emphasized the need to pay more attention to the more vulnerable members of society, including the elderly, children, women and the disabled.

Utsunomiya placed emphasis on stepping up preparations against natural disasters and revitalizing local economies. He said he would push for a nuclear-free Tokyo and launch a committee to draw up an effective energy policy to abolish atomic power.

Another major contender is former Air Self-Defense Force Gen. Toshio Tamogami, 65, who pledged to protect the lives and property of Tokyo residents by improving disaster preparedness and making the most of his crisis-management experience as leader of the air force.

The unabashed nationalist from Fukushima also wants to promote child-support measures for parents and the elderly and to make the capital the “safest, cleanest and most beautiful city” in the world ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

The future of nuclear energy is arguably the biggest topic in the election and media surveys show that public interest is keen.

An opinion poll by TV Asahi earlier this month said 69 percent of 508 people polled across the nation would welcome nuclear power as an issue in the election.

A recent Tokyo Shimbun telephone survey of 1012 residents found that “nuclear power and energy” ranked third in importance behind “medical care and welfare” and “education and child-rearing.”

Kobayashi of Keio University pointed out that it would mean a lot for the governor of Tokyo to open a discussion on the future of nuclear energy.

“It’s a fact that the metro government is a major shareholder of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which means a great deal,” Kobayashi said. The metropolitan government is the fourth-largest shareholder in Tepco and had a stake of 1.20 percent as of Sept. 30.

However, the effect would be limited since the governor can’t wield his influence beyond Tokyo, such as in Hokkaido or Kyushu, Kobayashi said.

“The pros and cons of the atomic power generation can be an issue for the election, but that is not the sole issue,” said Meiji University professor Yasushi Aoyama.

How much to rely on nuclear power as part of Tokyo’s overall energy mix should also be discussed, Aoyama pointed out, adding the public needs to start taking an interest in the subject.

Many other issues that impact the lives of Tokyoites and the local economy also need to be discussed, he said.

The major topics the governor and the metropolitan government must address are city planning, transportation, the environment, disaster preparedness, welfare, education and medical care, said Aoyama, who was vice governor from 1999 to 2003.

Kobayashi mostly agreed, calling nuclear power a major issue, but not the only issue, for Tokyo. He said the criteria for choosing a governor will lie in whether the candidate has the capacity to solve the various issues the capital faces.

“The first is a measure for elderly people. There are fewer households with three generations under one roof in the capital than in rural areas, because more senior citizens live alone or in a family of two, Kobayashi noted. “The metropolitan government has a big role (in caring for the elderly).”

The aging infrastructure built some 50 years ago, around the time of the Tokyo Olympics, also needs attention, considering the worries that have been spread over various earthquake scenarios since March 2011, Kobayashi said.

“If an inland quake happens, will all those infrastructures be alright?” he asked, pointing out the need for the public to consider who would be responsible for doing what in such an event.

Other issues include what to do with the financially troubled ShinGinko Tokyo bank and the planned relocation of the Tsukiji fish market to a filled in area in the Toyosu district, Kobayashi added.

It will be the third election in about three years after Shintaro Ishihara quit in the middle of his fourth term in 2012 to run in the Lower House election.

Inose received a record 4.3 million votes in the 2012 election, which drew nine candidates and turnout of 62.60 percent.

As of Wednesday there were about 10.82 million eligible voters among the capital’s 13.2 million residents.

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