TOKYO ‐ Polling opened at 7am local time (6am Singapore time) on Sunday (July 31) for Tokyo residents to cast their votes for a new governor, who will lead one of the world's largest cities in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics.
They are spoilt for choice: A record 21 candidates are in the running, but media polls have consistently shown that three have a massive lead ahead of the chasing pack.
Going into voting day, former defence and environment minister Yuriko Koike, 64, holds a marginal lead according to the polls. She is a former lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but is running as an independent after failing to win the party's backing.
Her closest opponents are the LDP-backed Hiroya Masuda, 64, who was formerly internal affairs and communications minister; and opposition-backed Shuntaro Torigoe, 76, a journalist.
Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, each with a local government that is largely autonomous though subject to national laws. Governors control metropolitan affairs.
A governor term is supposed to last for four years. But Japan's capital is already voting for its fourth governor since 2011 after the first quit to run for a parliamentary seat, and his two successors quit in ignominy for embarrassing money scandals.
Voting will close at 8pm on Sunday (July 31), and results are expected the same evening.
The new governor will lead a city with a gross domestic product bigger than all but 10 countries in the world, and a budget around the size of Sweden's.
He or she will need to deliver a top-notch Olympics event in 2020 while keeping a lid on ballooning costs: Japan's Olympic Organising Committee has asked Tokyo to shoulder part of the expenses.
Tokyo's preparations for the Games, too, have been hit by a long list of snags, including a scrapped stadium design by the late architect Zaha Hadid, accusations of plagiarism over its official logo, and alleged bribes linked to the host bid.
Besides that, the new governor will also have to circumvent a long list of pressing issues that dog the city of 12.97 million people ‐ including a chronic shortage of nurses to cope with a greying population, a long waiting list of more than 8,000 children to enter child care centres, and disaster preparedness concerns.
The campaign, which started on July 15, has thus far been a bruising one that has seen mudslinging and derogatory insults aplenty.
Former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who remains an influential LDP figure, accused Ms Koike as "a caked-up old woman well past her prime".
Ms Koike, who is fluent in Arabic and English, is running to become Tokyo's first female governor and only the seventh female prefectural leader in a patriarchal Japan that frequently fares lowly on gender equality indices.
Media polls suggest that her appeal to voters lies in the fact that she is an independent candidate without the shackles of a political party, and yet with leadership experience.
She alluded to this in her rally speech on Saturday, when she said: "Parties and organisations aren’t the ones to decide who would become governor."
Meanwhile, Mr Torigoe's campaign has been hit by allegations in a weekly tabloid Shukan Shincho that he had made untoward advances towards a 20-year-old university student a decade ago.
He lodged a criminal complaint, but the latest edition of the magazine repeated the allegations and quoted the purported victim and her boyfriend saying she had been "blinded by Torigoe's celebrity status".
Mr Masuda's campaign, in comparison, has appeared pretty plain-sailing although critics have labelled him a boring technocrat with little-to-no name recognisability.
Television footage of his rallies had shown him chanting his name, and he candidly admitted that he hoped "this will help voters remember his name better".
The tight race has spurred a typically apathetic Tokyo to vote: as of Friday, some 1.32 million people out of about 11.27 million eligible voters have cast their ballots in early voting that started on July 15.
This marks a 50 per cent increase in early voting numbers from the previous Tokyo governor election in February 2014.