Official campaigning for the Democratic Party of Japan presidential race kicked off Wednesday, with three hopefuls throwing their hats into the ring and pledging to rebuild the party and regain public trust.

DPJ deputy leader Katsuya Okada, 61, Goshi Hosono, 43, a former minister in charge of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Akira Nagatsuma, 54, a former welfare minister, submitted bids for the leadership and will compete in the party’s Jan. 18 election.

The winner will succeed Banri Kaieda, who resigned as leader after losing his seat in the snap Lower House election on Dec. 14.

Campaigning will center on how to resurrect the party, which held power between 2009 and 2012 but lost public trust. Since then, it has been soundly beaten by the Liberal Democratic Party at the polls.

“I have very strong sense of crisis over the DPJ. The public craves a political party that is strong enough to replace the LDP,” Nagatsuma told a press conference at DPJ headquarters in Tokyo. “This could be our last chance.”

Okada and Hosono were also present. Hosono, too, called for efforts to rebuild the frayed party.

“It’s disappointing. We can’t keep going like this,” he said. “We need to break away from the past and show the public that we have changed.”

Another issue will be whether the DPJ should pursue merger talks with other opposition parties, namely Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), the second-largest opposition force.

Although all three said a merger with Ishin no To would be difficult given their policy differences, Hosono appeared to be the most open to talks.

“There are policies we agree with,” Hosono said. “But in reality, it is difficult to join together as one political party.”

Okada said there is no chance of a merger with Ishin at present, as there are still several “hurdles to overcome.”

But both Hosono and Okada said that they would seek to cooperate with Ishin in the Diet and in elections.

Nagatsuma was the only candidate who said outright that he is against Japan exercising the right to collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack.

Okada, who is considered a policy expert, is the second son of a co-founder of Aeon Group, one of Japan’s largest retailers, a business now headed by his brother. The veteran lawmaker worked at the trade ministry before turning to politics in 1990 when he won a House of Representatives seat for the first time. He has served in key posts, including Foreign Minister in the DPJ government, and also headed the party between 2004 and 2005.

Hosono, a graduate of Kyoto University, worked as a researcher before entering politics in 2000. During the DPJ’s rule between 2009 and 2012, Hosono served as a minister in charge of Fukushima nuclear disaster and as the environment minister between 2011 and 2012.

Meanwhile, Nagatsuma, a former employee of NEC Corp. and a reporter with Nikkei Business Publications Inc., won a Lower House seat for the first time in 2000 at the age of 40. The former health minister has expertise in welfare policies such as pensions and labor.

The DPJ’s rank-and-file and supporters can vote in the upcoming election. It will be the first DPJ presidential election where such votes exceed those of DPJ Diet members, so overall popularity will be the key to winning the battle, and the three hopefuls plan to travel across the nation as they campaign for the role.

Among 760 point votes in total, the party’s local assembly members, rank-and-file members and supporters hold 495 points. The votes of DPJ lawmakers, including one candidate for the next Upper House election, represent 265 points.

The presidential election will be the first since December 2012, when the party relinquished power to the LDP.

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