There are 56 candidates in the Tokyo gubernatorial race.

On Sunday, voters in Tokyo will be spoiled for choice when they cast their ballots for the governor of the world's largest city.

Fifty-six candidates are contesting for the post, a record. A self-styled “joker” has proposed legalizing marijuana, saying polygamy could solve the country's declining birth rate. Another is a pro wrestler who hides his face on camera and vows to use artificial intelligence to complete official tasks. There's a 96-year-old inventor who says he'll deploy gas-fueled cars that emit zero carbon, and a 31-year-old entrepreneur who took off his shirt during a campaign video and promised What was that “fun stuff”.

Democracy seems to be in full swing. But in fact the race is pretty much stagnant and the incumbent is likely to win for the third time.

The proliferation of candidates reflects fatigue in politics as usual, and many of them are frivolous attention-seekers, creating a farcical, circus-like atmosphere and making real change even more out of reach.

“I wonder if this is democracy in action, or if it's 'your kind' of democracy,” said Emma Dalton, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Ms Dalton said a number of candidates had criticized Prime Minister Yuriko Koike “in a very vulgar way”. “Because they know she's going to win.”

The Tokyo election is symbolic of Japanese politics, where the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled nationally for all but four years since 1955. The party, which is backing Ms Koike, maintains an iron grip on Japan's parliament despite a series of scandals. and widespread voter discontent expressed at the polls but rarely at the ballot box.

Ms Quake, 71, has been dogged by questions about her university credentials and has refused to address allegations that she is linked to a major real estate developer involved in a number of controversial projects. But as the Liberal Democrats remain in power despite low approval ratings, she may be benefiting from a sense that there is no need to upset the apple basket in times of relative prosperity.

Despite some growing inequality and pockets of poverty, “most middle-class citizens are satisfied with their lives in Tokyo,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hoshi University in Tokyo.

While Ms. Quake has not fully delivered on promises to end daycare waiting lists, reduce congestion on commuter trains and end overtime among municipal workers, she has promised subsidies for families with children and private Has used budget surpluses to provide free tuition in high schools. City

Ms. Koike declined an interview request. The developer involved in the construction projects, Mitsui Fudosan, said in an email that it has “no close relationship” with the governor and “no special favors have been done.”

Initially, the Tokyo governor's race seemed to promise a referendum on the Liberal Democratic Party, when a serious challenger emerged to oppose Ms. Koike: Rinho Saito, 56, the former leader of Japan's largest opposition party. , who resigned from his parliamentary seat. to run. But the line-up of so many candidates has diverted attention from his campaign.

As the first woman to lead the opposition Democratic Party, Ms. Saito is well-known in Japan. He has sought to distinguish himself from Ms Quick by emphasizing the need to raise wages for young workers and rein in government spending. But he has also criticized the national party over financial scandals that have little to do with the Tokyo governorship.

Kenneth McElwain, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo, said focusing on a national party “is an easy task”. The threat is that “it's a reason not to vote for Koike, but it's a reason to vote for any of the 50-plus challengers.”

Other candidates have taken swings at the national government. Yusuke Kawai, who appeared in a campaign video on NHK, the public broadcaster, with spiky hair, a white face and red lips as a caricature of the Joker from the Batman franchise, urged Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to raise taxes. Criticized his plans.

“Prime Minister, before you raise taxes, make sure you sell the Rolex on your wrist!” He screamed, laughed madly, and clung to the table.

Campaign rules allow anyone who pays a deposit of about $19,000 to run for governor, and each candidate gets two six-minute slots on NHK and one of 14,000 official election billboards around the city. Gives the right to post signs on a

Although it aims to level the playing field for political participation, the system has been hijacked by people who want to reach large audiences with messages that have little to do with politics.

During a campaign aired on NHK, young entrepreneur Ari Achino removed a striped, button-down shirt to reveal her cleavage in a cream-colored tube top. “I'm not just cute,” she invited potential voters to connect with her on Line, Japan's popular messaging app. “I'm sexy, right?”

Ms. Achino is backed by the Party to Protect the People from NHK, a rebel group that is backing half of the gubernatorial candidates. The group has allowed its candidates and some others to put up campaign posters featuring cats or cartoon animals on official election signs.

Some candidates have used airtime to advance popular opinions, such as opposition to welfare benefits for foreign workers in Japan or transgender rights.

A large number of candidates can shake up a strong opposition. Geoffrey J. Hall, a lecturer in politics at Kanda University of International Studies, said that with all paid advertising banned, “mainstream candidates cannot amplify their messages to the point where they drown out the voices of minor candidates.” “

The disruption is obvious. In polling, Ms. Saito appears to be battling for second place with Shinji Ishimaru, 41, a former mayor of a city in Hiroshima Prefecture who described himself as an “idol” to supporters at a rally last week.

Mr. Ishimaru has not offered much of a platform, but his popularity on TikTok and YouTube has helped him gain support from young voters.

Such candidates represent Japan's generation of populism, said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, adding that many “non-serious
“Candidates” do not expect to win.

“These are the days where notoriety is business,” Mr. Nakano said. “Any kind of reputation gain will lead to more business opportunities.”

As one seeking to mount a serious challenge, Ms. Saito faces voters who are less likely to support her than to lose interest in the incumbent governor.

Yumi Matsushita, a university lecturer who attended one of Ms. Saito's rallies in Chofu, said she did not like that Ms. Quick “didn't respect” the voices of other races or LGBTQ people.

But his main objection to Ms Quake was that “a third term is too long.”

As the incumbent, Ms. Quake maintains a major advantage: No previous incumbent of the office has lost an election. It has also benefited from the massively synchronized news media. Although there have been rumors that he misrepresented his graduation from Cairo University, he has not investigated allegations that he favored developer Mitsui Fudosan in construction contracts.

One possible reason: The country's two largest newspapers, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun, are investing in one of these construction projects.

River Davis and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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