The race for Tokyo Governor has 56 candidates.

When voters in Tokyo cast their ballots for governor of the world’s largest city on Sunday, they will have plenty of choices.

Fifty-six candidates are running for the office, a record. One calls himself “the Joker” and has proposed legalizing marijuana and said polygamy could solve the nation’s declining birthrate. Another is a professional wrestler who covered his face on camera and vowed to use artificial intelligence to complete government tasks. There’s a 96-year-old inventor who says he’ll roll out carbon-neutral gasoline-powered cars, and a 31-year-old entrepreneur who stripped off his shirt in a campaign video and promised to “do cool things.”

It may seem like democracy is out of control. But in reality, the race remains the status quo, with the incumbent expected to win a third term.

The surge in candidates reflects a weariness with politics as usual, and many of them are not serious about seeking attention, creating a ridiculous, circus-like atmosphere and making real change seem more distant.

“I wonder if this is democracy in action, or if it’s more of a ‘superiority’ to democracy,” said Emma Dalton, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Many candidates have criticized the incumbent, Yuriko Koike“in the most vulgar way,” said Mrs. Dalton. “Because they knew she would win.”

The election in Tokyo is symbol of Japanese politicswhere the Liberal Democratic Party has governed at the national level for all but four years since 1955. The party, which backs Ms Koike, has held firm control of Japan’s parliament, despite numerous scandals and widespread voter discontent that shows up in opinion polls but is rarely expressed at the ballot box.

Ms Koike, 71, has been dogged by questions about her university credentials and has refused to answer allegations that she is linked to a major real estate developer involved in a number of controversial projects. But as the Liberal Democratic Party remains in power despite low approval ratings, she may benefit from a sense that she has no need to upset the order in a time of relative prosperity.

“Despite growing inequality and persistent poverty, most middle-class citizens are satisfied with life in Tokyo,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hosei University in Tokyo.

While Ms. Koike has not fully delivered on her promises to eliminate child care waiting lists, reduce subway congestion and abolish overtime for city workers, she has used the budget surplus to subsidize families with children and exempt tuition at the city’s private high schools.

Ms. Koike did not respond to an interview request. Mitsui Fudosan, the developer involved in the construction projects, said in an email that it “does not have a close relationship” with the governor and “has not been offered any special favors.”

At first, the race for Tokyo governor seemed to promise a referendum on the Liberal Democratic Party, until a serious challenger emerged to challenge Ms Koike: Renho Saito56, the former leader of Japan’s largest opposition party, who resigned from parliament to run. But the crowded field of candidates has distracted from her campaign.

As the first woman to lead the opposition Democratic Party, Ms. Saito is popular in Japan. She has sought to distinguish herself from Ms. Koike by emphasizing the need to raise wages for young workers and rein in government spending. But she has also criticized the nationalist party for financial scandal has little to do with the Tokyo governorship.

Focusing on the national party is “an easy shot,” said Kenneth McElwain, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo. The danger is that “it’s a reason not to vote for Koike, but also a reason to vote for any of the other 50 candidates.”

Other candidates have made moves against the national government. Yusuke Kawai, who appeared in a campaign video on public broadcaster NHK with matted hair, a pale face and red lips in a caricature of the Joker from the Batman series, be censured Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for tax hike plan.

“Prime Minister, before you raise taxes, sell that Rolex on your wrist!” he shouted, cackling and writhing on 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 broadcasts on NHK and the right to put up a sign on one of 14,000 official election billboards around the city.

Although the intention was to create a level playing field for political participation, the system has been exploited by those who want to convey many messages that may not have much to do with politics.

In a campaign broadcast on NHK, Airi Uchino, a young entrepreneur, unbuttoned her plaid button-down shirt to reveal cleavage in a cream-colored tube top. “I’m not just cute,” she whispered, inviting potential voters to connect with her on LinePopular Japanese messaging app. “I’m sexy, right?”

Ms. Uchino is backed by NHK’s People’s Protection Party, a defector group that supports nearly half of the gubernatorial candidates. The group has allowed its candidates and several others to post campaign posters featuring cats or cartoon animals on official election signs.

Some candidates used airtime to make general points, such as opposing welfare for foreign workers in Japan or transgender rights.

The sheer number of candidates can dampen serious opposition. With all paid advertising banned, “mainstream candidates can’t amplify their messages to the point where they drown out the voices of smaller candidates,” said Jeffrey J. Hall, a politics lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies.

The disruption is clear. In the poll, Ms. Saito appeared to be competing 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 taken many stances, but his popularity on TikTok and YouTube has helped him win support from younger voters.

Such candidates represent Japan’s populism, said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, adding that many “frivolous
“candidates” do not expect to win.

“This is a day when fame is business,” said Mr. Nakano. “Having fame in any form will lead to more business opportunities.”

As someone trying to mount a serious challenge, Saito faces voters who are no longer interested in the current governor but instead support her.

Yumi Matsushita, a university lecturer who attended one of Ms. Saito’s rallies in Chofu, said she disliked Ms. Koike’s “disrespect” of the voices of people of other ethnicities or the LGBTQ community.

But her real objection to Ms Koike is that “a third term is too long”.

As an incumbent, Ms. Koike retains a big advantage: No previous incumbent has lost an election. She also benefits from a fairly compliant media. Although it has dug into rumors that she misrepresented her graduation from Cairo University, it has yet to investigate allegations that she favored Mitsui Fudosan, the developer, in construction contracts.

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

River Davis and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.


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