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Japan Challenger Calls for Stronger Nation

By TOKO SEKIGUCHI And ALEXANDER MARTIN, TOKYO (WSJ): Shinzo Abe, the frontrunner to become Japan’s next prime minister, rallied supporters with a call for a stronger country Saturday night, hours before voters go to the polls in an election expected to give the country its seventh leader in six years.
In front of a flag-waving crowd of more than 4,000, mostly young men, on a cold evening in the Akihabara electronics district, Mr. Abe, known for his hard-edged nationalism, recounted the perceived slights suffered by Japan under the current government.

“Just recently a Chinese airplane violated our airspace, and we always see official Chinese ships entering our territorial waters,” said Mr. Abe, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan for nearly half a century before losing power three years ago. “This kind of thing never happened when the LDP was in power,” he said, referring to a Chinese propeller plane entering airspace Thursday over territory controlled by Japan but also claimed by China.

“We need to take a new step forward. I ask you people who have come today to fight with us to take down the current administration,” Mr. Abe told his supporters.

Mr. Abe had largely stuck to economic policy during the month-long parliamentary campaign, waged at a time when voters have said the country’s tepid growth was their top concern.

Mr. Abe’s chief opponent, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, has tried to paint the LDP as a dangerous nationalist party that threatens to upset regional stability when tensions between Japan and its neighbors are at their highest in recent years. Mr. Abe has called for revising the country’s pacifist constitution and beefing up the nation’s defense in border disputes.

“You might think that I’ve grown too forceful and assertive, but without such strong commitments, economic recovery will never be accomplished,” Mr. Abe said during a separate appearance on a TV show Saturday morning. “It wouldn’t be easy to rebuild the economy, diplomatic relations and the education system that have been left in ruins under the last three years of DPJ rule,” he said. “Strong leadership is required.”

Taro Yamamoto, 41, self-employed, was listening to the Akihabara speech with his wife and young daughter and a flag in his hand. He said he began to focus on national politics after a territorial run-in with China in 2010. “It’s no longer a ‘territorial issue,'” he said. “It’s China’s invasion of Japan.”

Mr. Abe’s LDP, according to most media polls, is expected to win Sunday’s vote and regain control of the government it lost to Mr. Noda’s DPJ in the previous election. Surveys project that that the LDP, with its junior coalition partner, may take as many as 300 seats in the 480-seat lower chamber, while the DPJ is expected to come out with around just 70 seats from its current 230—the lowest since the party was formed in 1998.

Earlier in the day, Japan’s embattled prime minister made an appeal to voters to keep his political reform movement alive.

“I know there are some of you who have been disappointed with the three years we have been in power,” Mr. Noda said Saturday to an audience of 300 in the Sugamo shopping district in northwest Tokyo popular with the elderly. “Give us one more chance!”

It was the last leg of the campaign trail for Mr. Noda that began in November with an apology on behalf of the ruling DPJ for failing to live up to its 2009 policy platform, including his enactment of an unpopular sales-tax hike earlier this year. When the DPJ swept to a landslide victory just over three years ago, the party had vowed to hold off on such a measure and promised Japanese voters a dramatic change in politics and polices.

Mr. Noda noted that a large bloc of voters—about 40%—told pollsters they remain undecided just a few days before the vote. “We can be on track if undecided voters support us,” Mr. Noda said.

Junji Tomiya, a 60-year-old retired worker who was listening to Mr. Noda’s speech, said he wasn’t impressed with the DPJ, which he voted for three years ago. “I think forcing through that tax-hike bill was a big mistake,” he said, adding that he planned to vote for one of the new parties that have cropped up in recent weeks, bringing the total in the running to a record 12. This time he’s going with the Tomorrow Party of Japan, which vows a sharp shift in the country’s energy policies following last year’s Fukushima accident. “I support their no-nuke policy,” he said.

Analysts say that Sunday’s contest will largely be characterized by a repudiation of the three-year governance of the DPJ marred by legislative gridlock, diplomatic faux-pas, and mishandling of disaster management.

“Just as the last election was a big ‘no’ to the LDP, this one will also be a retrospective voting to penalize the DPJ,” said Keio University political science professor Yasunori Sone. “But punishing the DPJ for its botched government management is hardly an endorsement of LDP policies,” he said.

Naoki Maruyama, a 24-year-old office employee, echoed that sentiment as he went on his white compact bicycle to cast his vote in Tokyo during early balloting Friday. “I voted for the DPJ last time, but the past years were bad, so I thought about going back to the LDP, but that’s not right for me,” he said. “I didn’t feel like voting for the big two,” he said, explaining that he chose another newer, smaller party because its candidate was young.

Published Date: Saturday, December 15th, 2012 | 08:45 AM

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