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For more than 50 years now Japan has been ruled nearly continuously by one party - the Liberal Democratic Party. Maybe not much longer. On Sunday, Japanese voters go to the polls in parliamentary elections, and change appears to be on the way after years of a sluggish economy and widespread frustration with the Japanese political system. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan is expected to win big. NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Tokyo.
LOUISA LIM: On a Tokyo sidewalk, Kenjiro Hata mans the grill outside a restaurant, calling to customers and flipping chicken kebabs. When asked who he'll vote for, he keeps repeating just two words.
Mr. KENJIRO HATA (Cook): Obama, Obama, Obama, change, change.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LIM: He's referring to the Obama-inspired campaign for change run by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Its leader is a 62-year-old, Stanford-educated engineer Yukio Hatoyama, who pillories the long-term reign of the LDP as a party gone rotten. He launched his campaign with this call to arms.
Mr. YUKIO HATOYAMA (Democratic Party of Japan): (Through translator) 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.
LIM: And if the polls are to be believed, the electorate seems to be listening.
Mr. YUUICHIRO NAKAJIMA (Crimson Partners): I could put my money on a landslide. Maybe not a massacre, but a landslide.
LIM: Yuuichiro Nakajima, from consulting firm Crimson Partners, enumerates some of the reasons for an opposition landslide.
Mr. NAKAJIMA: There's public anger about the pension scandal. There's been lots of pension related records that have been lost. Mismanagement of various policies is another factor and other political scandals, also, of misdeeds by politicians.
LIM: A voter who gives her name as Sachiko is waiting to hear the latest campaign speech by Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano. And her main concern, like many other voters, is unemployment, which, at 5.4 percent, is at a six-year high.
Ms. SACHIKO: (Through translator): As a contract worker I got fired, so I want to know what the candidates will do about the issue of unemployment.
(Soundbite of applause)
LIM: When he arrives, the finance minister has clearly aged visibly compared to his campaign poster. Earlier in the week, he warned of what he called a one-party dictatorship in parliament by the opposition. And when he speaks, Yosano defends his party's economic policies.
Mr. KAORU YOSANO (Finance Minister, Japan): (Through Translator) We've never tried to produce super-rich people, and we've never left poor people suffering without support.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: But the opposition is offering more. Its campaign ads concentrate on the elderly and children. It's promising free schooling, improved social security and a $270 monthly child allowance.
But the ruling party is running negative campaign ads questioning how these pledges will be funded. They show a man who looks like opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama wooing a woman. I'll pay for your child care, your education and your old age, he says.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: When the woman asks how he'll pay, he answers, I'll think about the details after we're married.
Analyst Koichi Nakano from Sophia University doubts the opposition can deliver on its pledges.
Mr. KOICHI NAKANO (Analyst, Sophia University): I don't expect them to be able to deliver 100 percent, but if they can deliver 70 percent, then will that be enough? I think it's going to, of course, disappoint some people, but that may be enough for others.
LIM: Whatever the disappointments ahead, one thing is clear: one recent poll indicated a staggering 91 percent of the electorate plans to cast ballots on Sunday. This election and the prospect of a transfer of power is reenergizing Japanese politics and putting an end to voter apathy - at least for now.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Tokyo.
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