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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Japan's prime minister resigned today as head of the country's ruling party in the wake of a huge loss in the nation's parliamentary elections. Official results won't be certified until tomorrow but it appears the main opposition party has won a sweeping victory. Media exit polls show the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, took a majority of seats in lower house of Parliament. And that means the party's leader, Shinzo Abe, is poised to become Japan's prime minister for the second time.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering this story, and he joins us from Tokyo. Frank, what drove the LDP to what is sounding like a lopsided victory?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's been a mix of things, I think. Part of it was complete dissatisfaction with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. You know, they took over more than three years ago and they were running on transparency and trying to turn around this ossified political system. But a lot of people feel they lost their way politically. They did not perform terribly well with the Fukushima meltdown. Tsunami reconstruction has been going slowly. So, all of those things, I think, are a big factor.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk more about that. What have been the major of Abe's campaign platform?

LANGFITT: Well, he's running on - his slogan is: Take back Japan. And big problem here, as has been really for 20 years for the most part, is the economy. It appears to be back in recession. He's talking about heavy spending on public works to trying to get things going again. But he's also talking about a stronger military profile. And there's been a sense, certainly, among some here in Japan that the government's been weak as China has been rising and frankly as China has eclipsed this country. The other thing is how to deal with China and this dispute over these islands in the East China Sea. They're said to be close to natural resources but more than anything they seem to be kind of a proxy for sort of the balance of power between Japan and China. A few days ago, there was a Chinese government plane that flew near the islands. Japan said it was an invasion of air space and scrambled jets. And just before the election, it seemed like really a taunt from China. One of the things Abe's talking about is changing the pacifist constitution here so the military can be more aggressive.

MARTIN: So, this would be the second time Abe served as prime minister. Are there some concerns about that?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I think one of the concerns that you hear from a lot of political observers is taking the country in a more nationalistic direction, which wouldn't go over very well in this part of the world. It's been more than six decades since the end of World War II, but there's still really bitter memories about Japanese atrocities in Korea and in China. And so when the rhetoric gets nationalistic here, people in the region tend to pause. One of the questions also is how would he deal with China and this island dispute that's been going on for a number of months. A more nationalistic prime minister here in Japan, would he be on a collision course with what has certainly been a much more nationalistic China of late. Now, if you go back to 2006 when he was prime minister the first time, his first trip was to China and he was able to calm the waters. The question would be is he the guy to do it now?

MARTIN: Japan is America's top ally in Asia. It is an increasingly important ally. And when it comes to those islands you mentioned, this can also be kind of a tense part of the world. What are the American interests in this election, Frank?

LANGFITT: I think pretty big. Japan is very important to U.S. strategy in this part of the world. Even though it's been in recession off and on for 20 years, it's still the third-largest economy. I think the Americans would really like to see Japan get back on track economically. The U.S. also has a treaty to defend Japan. It would like to see Japan do more militarily for itself and also perhaps vis-a-vis a rise in China. At the same time, you know, they don't want to see Japan's relations with China get out of control. These are two enormous economies and very important to stability in this part of the world. One thing's clear: the U.S. does not want to have to take sides if there's a clash over the island.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Tokyo. Voters in Japan have returned the opposition Liberal Democratic Party to power. Thanks very much, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome.

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