Crackly stump speeches delivered atop roving campaign trucks echoed through the streets of Tokyo on Thursday as candidates in the upcoming gubernatorial election officially kicked off their campaigns.
The election will shine a spotlight on two topics: what countermeasures are needed to prevent a second wave of novel coronavirus infections in Tokyo, and whether the capital is fit to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who announced her bid for re-election last week, is riding a wave of popularity since the capital saw relatively low casualties during its initial brush with the pandemic.
She became Tokyo’s first female governor in 2016 and has a clear advantage, but a number of noteworthy candidates have emerged that could give the incumbent a run for her money.
As of Thursday afternoon, 22 individuals have filed their candidacy with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Election Administration Commission.
The campaign period will continue for 17 days leading up to the election on July 5.
Kenji Utsunomiya, a 73-year-old lawyer and former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said he wants to focus on social welfare and bolstering financial support for small businesses, single mothers and others who are struggling the most while the economy is stalled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
He also called for the 2020 Games to be canceled, with the resulting savings used to help revive the capital’s economy following the coronavirus pandemic.
Koike and Utsunomiya are running as independents, but the incumbent has the unofficial backing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as well as Komeito. Utsunomiya has the support of the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
Other front-runners include Taro Yamamoto, the former actor-turned-leader of the anti-establishment party Reiwa Shinsengumi, as well as Taisuke Ono, a former vice governor of Kumamoto Prefecture who is supported by Nippon Ishin no Kai, or the Japan Innovation Party.
While Utsunomiya is considered Koike’s greatest challenger, there is speculation that liberal and undecided voters will be split between him and Yamamoto, which would likely cost him the election.
Koike, Utsunomiya, Yamamoto and Ono — as well as Takashi Tachibana, controversial leader of NHK Kara Kokumin o Mamoru To (Party to Protect the People from NHK) — squared off for the first time during a joint online news conference Wednesday, providing a taste of how the election might unfold over the next 2½ weeks.
During the debate, Yamamoto claimed that the financial stimulus for local businesses impacted by the pandemic wasn’t sufficient, and nor did it come fast enough to help the economy recover. Utsunomiya, meanwhile, said the capital was in need of budget reform following four years of Koike’s “rash spending.”
While the candidates largely overlapped on what countermeasures they believe are necessary to prevent and prepare for a second wave of coronavirus infections in Tokyo, each had their own notion of how and when — and if — Tokyo should host the 2020 Games.
Koike said Tokyo is capable of containing the virus by next year, and that the burden of postponing beyond 2021 would be too much on athletes and organizers. Ono and Tachibana said the quadrennial sporting event should be pushed back to 2022 or 2024, while Utsunomiya and Yamamoto suggested it be canceled altogether.
In 2016, Koike raked in more than 2.9 million votes, while trailing candidates received around 1.8 million and 1.3 million votes. Voter turnout in the 2016 poll was about 59 percent, which was 13 percentage points higher than the previous gubernatorial election in the capital.
As of March, Tokyo had more than 11.4 million registered voters, according to the metropolitan government. Yasushi Aoyama, a professor of political science at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance who served as Tokyo’s vice governor from 1999 to 2003, predicted that Koike will secure more than 2 million votes in the upcoming election, while Utsunomiya could secure between 100,000 and a million votes.
“Koike’s victory is likely but the goals of her campaign remain unclear, more so now than when she was running for her first term,” Aoyama said. “But it’s advantageous for an incumbent to tout reliability over reformative change, and that’s what I expect from Koike in this election.”