The race to become the next governor of Tokyo kicked off yesterday in an election that is widely seen as a referendum on Japan's energy policy, almost three years after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
Observers say the election on February 9 will be a two-horse race between the anti-nuclear former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Yoichi Masuzoe, an academic and former health minister, who served as a member of a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government.
"We have to stop [the policy of] restarting nuclear plants as soon as possible and adapt to a new era," Hosokawa said on the campaign trail yesterday.
Japanese voters have become wary of nuclear power since the tsunami-sparked disaster at Fukushima began in March 2011, but the issue failed to materialise in the national polls that swept Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power, with his opponents' apparent haplessness neutralising their anti-nuclear stance.
The governor of Tokyo has no actual power to change national energy policy, but the sheer size of the city, with 13 million inhabitants and a pivotal place in the economic, political and cultural life of Japan, means its verdict will be tough to ignore.
Hosokawa, whose term as prime minister from 1993 to 1994 is little more than a footnote to political history, has the backing of wildly popular one-time prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
That puts Koizumi at odds with Abe, his one-time protégé, who has vowed to restart the plants when they have passed new, more stringent safety tests.
Popular memories of Koizumi's 2001-2006 reign as prime minister remain overwhelmingly positive, and his backing is expected to give Hosokawa a significant boost, say analysts.
"At this point, Mr Masuzoe seems to be the strongest candidate as Mr Hosokawa has been largely mum about the details of his policy stances," said Sadafumi Kawato, professor of politics at Tokyo University.
But he added that "Mr Koizumi is still popular and honestly I can't predict the vote result".
"But if Mr Hosokawa wins the election, it could be an obstacle to Prime Minister Abe's energy policy," he said, noting that Tokyo is a major shareholder of Tokyo Electric Power Company.
Masuzoe, who gained fame as a political scientist and TV pundit, said his priority was the success of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On energy policy, he said "it is better to reduce the ratio" of nuclear power in energy consumption, adding "in the short term, securing the safety of nuclear plants is important".
At least 15 people filed their candidacy for the election, to be voted for by 10.82 million people, Tokyo's election board said.
Other candidates include Kenji Utsunomiya, 67, an anti-nuclear liberal lawyer backed by the Communist Party, and Toshio Tamogami, 65, a former air defence force chief with outspoken nationalist views.
The post of Tokyo governor fell vacant last month when Naoki Inose stepped down in a money scandal after admitting he had been naive to accept an undeclared US$500,000 from a hospital tycoon. Prosecutors have begun quizzing him over the cash.
Key Candidates in the Tokyo election
Kenji Utsunomiya, 67, is former president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and is known for his activities supporting victims of crimes committed by members of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult. He has the backing of the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, and says he wants to restore social welfare services. Opposes nuclear energy.
Morihiro Hosokawa, 76, became prime minister in 1993 at the head of a now-defunct coalition. He stepped down in April 1994 amid a political funding scandal involving a 100 million yen loan. He is backed by political heavyweight and former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. Opposes nuclear energy production.
Yoichi Masuzoe, 65, is an expert on international politics who served as health minister from 2007 to 2009. He says he went into politics determined to improve Japan's welfare provision after taking care of his ageing mother. He opposes an immediate end to nuclear energy production but says he favours phasing it out.
Toshio Tamogami, 65, was removed from his job as Air Self-Defence Force chief in 2008 for publishing an essay that argued Japan was not an aggressor in the second world war. The vocal right-winger has received support from fellow nationalist and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara as well as more extreme voices. He wants idled nuclear reactors restarted.