Japan Vote Could Set New Tone For Nation

Japan holds elections tomorrow for the lower house of parliament, which is more powerful than the upper house, and which has more control over the budget and selects the prime minister. Over the years, the country has been plagued by a succession of weak leaders.

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Japanese voters go to the polls tomorrow. They are expected to toss out the ruling party. Shinzo Abe is likely to become prime minister for the second time. Japan faces another economic slide, rising nationalist rhetoric and a dangerous stand-off with China. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Tokyo on the politics that are roiling America's top ally in Asia.

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FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: At a rally this week, Toshiharu Furukawa, a member of Japan's parliament, outlined the country's decline since his Liberal Democratic Party was ousted after more than a half century of nearly uninterrupted rule.

TOSHIHARU FURUKAWA: (Through Translator) Three years and three months has passed since the general election of summer 2009. What has happened? Gross national product, which had been six trillion, has dropped to $300 billion. So the sales from your shops go down and down. Furthermore, your salaries go down and down.

LANGFITT: At a bullet train station outside Tokyo, Furukawa said, meanwhile, neighboring countries are feuding with Japan over islands it claims as its own.

FURUKAWA: (Through Translator) Korea and China are violating Japanese waters and now we are in historically our worst relation with other countries.

LANGFITT: Shinzo Abe, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, then pledged to restore the Japanese nation.

SHINZO ABE: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Children born in Japan can have pride in having been born here, he said. We should take back Japan.

ABE: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Kazuya Okamoto, a laid-off garage mechanic, stood in the crowd, his face impassive. He wore a blue Converse hoodie and a black watch cap. At age 30, Okamoto never knew Japan's boom years of the 1980s, only the stagnation that followed.

KAZUYA OKAMOTO: (Through Translator) The economy has always been bad since I was aware of it. It was already in what is now called, the lost decades.

LANGFITT: Okamoto has applied for at least 30 jobs in the last six months with no replies. Were it not for his parents, he'd be homeless. Okamoto backed the Democratic Party of Japan, the current ruling party, when it swept to power amid great hopes.

OKAMOTO: (Through Translator) I thought they would make a change. From this experience, now I can't trust what is said by any party.

LANGFITT: Analysts say the DPJ was inexperienced and lost its way politically. Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, says disillusionment is widespread.

JEFFREY KINGSTON: Most people are very disenchanted with politics in Japan. They feel very disappointed in the ruling DPJ, but I don't think many people see a lot of hope in the LDP.

LANGFITT: This year, political rhetoric has shifted to the right. Koichi Nakano is a professor of political science at Tokyo's Sophia University. He says Abe has shared flag-draped stages with people who deny Japanese war-time atrocities against the Chinese.

KOICHI NAKANO: It really looks like pre-war Japan or something in some of the footages. I thought it was very worrying, I couldn't believe that the Japanese have, you know, now is going to that extreme to embrace nationalism that only provides phony solutions.

LANGFITT: If Abe does become prime minister again, he'll have to manage the island dispute with an increasingly aggressive China. The tenor of this campaign probably won't help.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo.

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