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Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, speaks at a campaign rally Tuesday at Tokyo's Akabane Station. A landslide victory is predicted for the DPJ, which would end the Liberal Democratic Party's historic run in power.
Japanese voters go to the polls Sunday in a landmark election that looks set to end more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. A newspaper survey of eligible voters says the opposition Democratic Party of Japan could win a two-thirds majority.
On a Tokyo sidewalk, Kenjiro Hata mans the grill outside a restaurant, calling to customers and flipping chicken kebabs. When asked who he will vote for in Sunday's election for the lower house of parliament, he keeps repeating two words: Obama and change.
He is referring to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and its Barack Obama-inspired campaign for change, led by 62-year-old, Stanford-educated engineer Yukio Hatoyama.
Hatoyama pillories the long-term reign of the LDP as a party gone rotten. He launched his campaign with a rallying cry.
"Let's clean up Japan, let's make history. I don't want you to be just a witness of history. I want each of you to make history," he told supporters.
Katsuhito Yokokume, in white, a parliamentary candidate for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, has pedaled 30 miles a day for his election campaign, criss-crossing his district in the seaside town of Yokosuka to try to get his face known. He first gained fame in a reality TV show, where his nickname was "prime minister."
Katsuhito Yokokume, in white, a parliamentary candidate for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, has pedaled 30 miles a day for his election campaign, criss-crossing his district in the seaside town of Yokosuka to try to get his face known. He first gained fame in a reality TV show, where his nickname was "prime minister." Louisa Lim/NPR
If the polls are accurate, the electorate seems to be listening.
"I could put my money on a landslide," says Yuuichiro Nakajima of the consulting firm Crimson Phoenix.
Nakajima says public anger over lost pension records, government mismanagement and other scandals and misdeeds by politicians are among the reasons for the projected opposition rout.
At a recent election event, a voter who gave her name as Sachiko waited to hear the final campaign speech before Sunday's vote by Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano of the LDP. Like many voters, her main concern is unemployment, which, at 5.7 percent, is at a post-war high.
"As a contract worker I got fired, so I want to know what the candidates will do about the issue of unemployment," she says.
Earlier in the week, Yosano warned of what he called a one-party "dictatorship" in parliament if the opposition, which won a majority in the less powerful upper house two years ago, wins a landslide in elections for the lower house Sunday.
Yosano defended his party's economic policies. "We've never tried to produce super-rich people, and we've never left poor people suffering without support," Yosano said.
But the Democratic Party of Japan is offering more. Its campaign ads concentrate on the needs of the elderly and children. The party is promising free schooling, improved social security and a $270 monthly child allowance.
The ruling party is running negative campaign ads questioning how these pledges will be funded. They show a man who looks like Hatoyama, the opposition leader, wooing a woman. "I'll pay for your child care, your education and your old age," he says.
When the woman asks how he will pay, he answers, "I'll think about the details after we're married."
Analyst Koichi Nakano of Sophia University, a private university in Tokyo, doubts the opposition can deliver on its pledges.
"I don't expect them to be able to deliver 100 percent, but if they can deliver 70 percent, then will it be enough? I think it's going to, of course, disappoint some people, but it may be enough for others," Nakano says.
Whatever the possible disappointments ahead, one thing is clear: The campaign and the prospect of a transfer of power has re-energized Japanese politics and put an end to voter apathy — at least for now. A recent poll indicated that 91 percent of the electorate plans to cast ballots Sunday.