TOKYO -- Voters go to the polls Sunday to vote for members of the lower house of the Diet, in Japan's first general election since the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18.
Although Japan's economy is doing fairly well at the moment, the future looks murky. Voters head to the polls amid uncertainty, as both policymakers and citizens face the challenge of a shrinking, aging population. These demographic shifts will require a more productive economy if living standards are to rise. Bread-and-butter issues will figure prominently in voters' choices on Sunday.
Internationally, Chinese President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping laid out his vision for making China a great power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, during the party's soon-to-end national congress in Beijing.
The U.S. and China may be in for a reversal of roles, with China becoming the dominant power in Asia as the U.S. slips into relative decline. It is unclear how Japan will adjust to this changing strategic environment, but voters appear to have more immediate concerns.
Stay the course
The heads of the ruling and opposition parties made their cases with voters during the 12-day campaign. On Saturday night, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who doubles as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, made his final pitch in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district in what will be his fifth national election. The previous poll, in 2012, returned him to power.
Abe's fortunes now are better than the last time he was in Akihabara. In July, as he campaigned for an LDP member vying for seat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, he encountered angry protesters calling for his resignation.
This time around, the prime minister revisited the main themes of his campaign, asking the people to keep him and the LDP in charge. Sunday's vote, he said, "is an election for voters to decide which force they will entrust with running the country."
Abe stressed the accomplishments of his government's nearly five-year rule. His speech was peppered with the names of world leaders -- Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel -- as he tried to highlight Japan's greater visibility on the international stage under his leadership.
Abe also attempted to tie Japan's brightening economic picture to prospects for his re-election. The Nikkei Stock Average has been on a winning streak of late. Referring to opinion polls pointing to a likely win for the ruling bloc, Abe said: "The stock market has responded well to the reports."
Listing his government's economic accomplishments, Abe said: "We were able to raise the ratio of job offers to job seekers for permanent positions to 1 for the first time in Japan" adding that "our country's gross domestic product rose to a record level."
Turning overseas, Abe said of North Korea, "We should apply strong pressure on the country through cooperation with the international community." His repeated references to North Korea are aimed at raising a question in voters' minds: Is it safe to give the reins of government to the opposition, given the potential for a conflict on the Korean Peninsula?
Or time for a change?
The case for keeping Abe and the LDP in power is not nearly so open and shut, according to Kazuo Shii, chairman of the opposition Japanese Communist Party. Abe "avoids mentioning the specific numbers, which I think is important to do," Shii told supporters during this campaign.
Abe, Shii pointed out, did not mention in his speech the 2% inflation target that he had repeatedly promised to meet during his time in office. That goal still appears a long way off.
Abe also spoke about the consumption tax hike, scheduled for October 2019, as his reason for dissolving the lower house and calling the snap election. "We will change the way to use" the money raised from the tax hike, he said, adding, "We will earmark nearly 2 trillion yen ($17.6 billion) to support households that are struggling with child care and nursing care."
The consumption tax appeared to take a back seat in this final pitch.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who leads Kibo no To, or the Party of Hope, the largest opposition group, said the main point of the election was "to defeat Abe," as she spoke in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district.
She touted her new right-leaning party as one that can "which can conduct politics while securing administrative transparency through disclosure."
As Japan's baby boomers will be 75 or older by 2025, she said, the country "needs to first devise a policy framework." Although supporters will argue she raises an important point, her critics counter that she lacks a comprehensive economic plan or policy blueprint. Party of Hope has vowed in its manifesto to achieve both economic growth and fiscal reconstruction through "Yurinomics," but it has not spelled its policies out concretely.
On the left, Constitutional Democratic Party leader Yukio Edano hammered on two points: grass-roots democracy and economic revival, at a rally in Saitama.
But his party seems in disarray over important issues, such as national security. Candidates were seen thumbing through documents outlining party pledges when one voter asked where it stood on the security question and others.
The media focus on Koike and her party has left other opposition groups fighting for attention.
Although many people blame apathetic youth for Japan's low voter turnout in recent elections, many young people were present at campaign rallies and appeared eager to hear what the ruling and opposition party leaders had to say.
Crisscrossing the country
The total distance traveled by the eight party heads during the campaign is expected to hit 77,000km. Under Japan's electoral rules, candidates are allowed to speak to voters until 8 p.m. Saturday.
Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi is expected to have traveled the most, racking up 15,064km, although he had visited only Tokyo, Hokkaido and 11 other prefectures. That is a significant increase from 8,232km traveled by the party leader in the previous lower house election.
Edano is expected to come in second, traveling 13,470km, hitting Tokyo, Hokkaido and 15 other prefectures. He was to make his final speech in Saitama, his home district, after making the rounds in neighboring Tokyo.
Abe is expected to place third in the travel contest, covering 12,726km, including Tokyo, Hokkaido and 20 other prefectures; followed by Shii at 10,716km, including visits to Tokyo, Hokkaido and 17 other prefectures; Koike, who traveled 8,565km around Tokyo, Hokkaido and 20 other prefectures, comes next.
Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who heads the Japan Innovation Party, has traveled 6,170km in all, visiting Tokyo and eight other prefectures. Social Democratic Party leader Tadatomo Yoshida, at 6,074km, and Japanese Kokoro head Masashi Nakano, at 4,187km, bring up the rear.