Candidates made final impassioned appeals Saturday to Japanese voters a day before parliamentary elections that are likely to hand power back to a conservative party that ruled the country for most of the post-war era.
While many voters remain undecided — reflecting widespread disillusionment with any party — polls suggest that the electorate will dump Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan three years after it swept to power amid high hopes for change.
The DPJ's inability to deliver on a string of promises and Noda's push to double the sales tax have turned off voters, who appear to be turning back to the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955 until it lost badly to the DPJ in 2009.
If the LDP wins on Sunday, it would give the nationalistic Shinzo Abe, who was prime minister from 2006-2007, the top job again. His hawkish views raise questions about how that might affect ties with rival China amid a territorial dispute over a cluster of tiny islands claimed by both countries.
"We want to restore a Japan where children are proud to have been born here. Please give us your hand," Abe, who would be Japan's seventh prime minister in 6 1/2 years, declared from the top of a truck at a campaign stop in Wako, a city northwest of Tokyo.
A win for Abe and the LDP would signal a shift to the right for Japan. The party calls for a more assertive foreign policy and revisions in Japan's pacifist constitution that would strengthen its military posture. The controversial proposals include renaming the Self-Defense Forces to call them a military — taboo since World War II — and allowing Japanese troops to engage in "collective self-defense" operations with allies that aren't directly related to Japan's own self-defense.
With Japan's economy stuck in a two-decade slump, the Liberal Democrats also call for more public works spending. They are generally more supportive of nuclear energy even though most Japanese want atomic energy phased out following last year's disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
Prime Minister Noda, meanwhile, has sought to cast the election as a choice between moving forward or going back to the old politics of the LDP.
"It was of the Democratic Party of Japan who put in the effort to recover from Japan's 20-year slump. Are we giving this up now and are we going back to the 20-year slump? We must not do that," Noda told listeners in Tokyo.
Surveys this past week showed about 40 percent of people were undecided, reflecting a lack of voter enthusiasm for any party, as well as confusion over the emergence of several fledgling parties that have popped up in recent months espousing a wide range of views.
The right-leaning, populist Restoration Party of Japan, led by ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto — both outspoken, colorful politicians — is calling for a more assertive Japan, particularly in its dealings with China. But their forceful leadership styles and differing views on nuclear power and free trade have raised questions in voters' minds.
The anti-nuclear Tomorrow Party, formed just two weeks ago, is led by Yukiko Kada, an environmental expert and the governor of Shiga prefecture. But the party's image has taken a hit after she joined forces with a small DPJ breakaway party led by Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran power broker with a negative reputation among many Japanese.
Major Japanese newspapers are projecting that the LDP will win a majority of seats in the 480-seat lower chamber of parliament, meaning it could rule alone or perhaps form a coalition with the closely allied Komeito, a party backed by a large Buddhist lay organization.
Those newspaper predictions were based on telephone polls, educated guesswork from reporters in voting districts across the country and analysis of past voting patterns. While such projections have generally been accurate in the past, some experts have cautioned that the actual results may be quite different, especially since so many are undecided.
"I don't know whether there is any alternative" to the current ruling party, said Keiko Seki, a-60-year-old Tokyo woman who was listening to Abe's speech. "I find this election very difficult to decide who to vote for."