Tokyo governor election kicks off

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The race to elect a successor to colourful and controversial Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara kicked off Thursday with his handpicked nominee expected to cruise to an easy victory.

Ishihara, a veteran right-wing firebrand who is widely blamed for exacerbating a territorial row with China, abruptly resigned to lead a new political party in a December 16 general election that coincides with the poll in the city of 13 million.

His chosen successor, deputy governor Naoki Inose, 66, a prize-winning author like Ishihara, has a commanding lead among the nine candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring, analysts say.

The Tokyo vote will essentially be a referendum on Ishihara, who was a year into his fourth four-year term and provoked a flare-up with Beijing over his plans to buy a group of islands at the centre of a dispute with China.

Inose, seen as a tough-minded reformer, has pledged to continue Ishihara's bid for Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympic Games, despite the city's costly failure to win the 2016 Games.

Despite the overall financial gloom in Japan, the capital exists in something of a bubble, and still boasts eye-wateringly expensive eateries and shops stocking the world's finest luxury goods.

Because of this relative wealth and stability, Tokyoites are unlikely to seek any real change, said Tomoaki Iwai, political scientist at Nihon University, meaning Inose is all-but guaranteed victory.

"A focus, if any, will be how big a victory Mr. Inose will be able to pull off," Iwai said.

Inose's rival candidates are likely to attack him and Ishihara on an ill-fated bank the Tokyo government launched in 2005 to help local small businesses.

The bank's balance sheet quickly turned to tatters with a series of loans that went bad and it is now using public cash to try to get back on an even financial keel.

The only one of his eight opponents who could come close to Inose is Kenji Utsunomiya, 66, a veteran human rights lawyer and a former president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

He has won endorsement from left-leaning parties for his calls to permanently close Japan's nuclear plants following the atomic catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after last year's tsunami.

The plant, around 220 kilometres (135 miles) from Tokyo, supplied the capital with electricity until its reactors went into meltdown, spewing radiation over the land and sea.

Little radiation is recorded as having reached Tokyo, but the disaster left the city's inhabitants wary of the technology.

The Tokyo government is a major shareholder in the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power, but Inose is credited as having been tough on the utility, which has since been taken into public ownership.