Candidates for the upper house of Japan's parliament made final campaign pushes Saturday, a day before elections that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition is expected to easily win as the economy picks up steam.
A victory Sunday would give Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner New Komeito control of both houses of parliament — an elusive goal for the government in recent years — making it easier to pass legislation at a time when Japan faces huge structural challenges, including a rapidly graying population and bulging national debt.
Reviving the long-stagnant economy is the top priority for voters, and Abe agrees. Aggressive monetary easing and public works spending — the first two "arrows" of his three-pronged "Abenomics" economic program — has so far borne some fruit, lifting the stock market, boosting business confidence and easing pressure on Japan's vital exporters by weakening the yen.
Major economic challenges lay ahead, including Abe's promises to carry out economic reforms aimed at increasing Japan's competitiveness — the third "arrow" — and a decision this fall on whether to follow through on raising the sales tax next April from 5 percent to 8 percent — a move some warn will derail the fledgling recovery.
A convincing victory in Sunday's election, where half the 242 seats in the less powerful upper house of parliament are up for grabs, may also embolden Abe and his backers in the LDP to pursue a nationalistic agenda he had abandoned his first time in office in 2006-2007.
Abe and others in the increasingly right-wing LDP have said they would like to revise the country's pacifist constitution, drafted by the United States after World War II, to give Japan's military a larger role and make changes to the education system to instill more patriotism in students.
Under the campaign slogan "Recover Japan," the LDP promises to make Japan a muscular, gentle and proud country. It calls for a strong economy, strategic diplomacy and unshakable national security under the Japan-U.S. alliance, which allows for 50,000 American troops to be stationed in Japan.
That message has resonated with some voters worried about tensions over territorial disputes with China and South Korea and widespread distrust of an increasingly assertive China. A recent survey by Pew Research Center showed that only 5 percent of Japanese have a favorable opinion of China.
Perhaps the most significant revision proposed by the LDP is relaxing the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, which bans the use of force in international disputes except for self-defense. A revision could open the way for Japan to have full-fledged armed forces and make territorial protection a public duty.
Stepping up nationalistic rhetoric or taking steps to expand the role of Japan's military will likely further strain ties with major trading partners China and South Korea. Abe has already upset both neighbors since taking office in December by saying he wanted to revise Japan's 1995 apology for its wartime aggression and questioning the extent to which Korean, Chinese and other Asian women were coerced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
Revising the constitution is a lengthy process that requires two-thirds approval of both houses of parliament and a national referendum. With economic concerns uppermost, it remains to be seen whether Abe and parliament will be able to devote the considerable time and energy required to tackle such matters.
Surveys show that the public is most concerned about the economy, social security, the sales tax hike and reconstruction after the March 2011 tsunami. Two-and-a-half years after that disaster, very little rebuilding has begun along the battered northeastern coastline.
Public support for changing the constitution ranks lower.
Energy issues such as nuclear power are less important to voters, polls show. Despite considerable public opposition to nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, many voters appear to be willing to support the pro-nuclear LDP because they are attaching a higher priority on economic and security issues.