TOKYO - Japanese were voting Sunday in parliamentary elections that were expected to put the once-dominant conservatives back in power after a three-year break — and bring in a more nationalistic government amid tensions with big neighbour China.
Major newspapers were predicting the Liberal Democratic Party, led by the hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would win a majority of the seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, although surveys also showed that many voters remained undecided just days before the election.
Voters have soured on the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which won a landslide victory in 2009 but could not deliver on a string of campaign pledges. They are also upset over Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's push to double the sales tax, a move he argues is necessary to meet rising social security costs as the nation rapidly greys.
Disillusionment with politics is running high in Japan, as is confusion over a hodgepodge of small, new parties that have sprung up in recent months espousing a variety of not always coherent policy views. One has a nationalistic image, while another is staunchly anti-nuclear, tapping into grass-roots opposition to atomic power in the wake of last year's disaster in Fukushima.
With Japan stuck in a two-decade economic slump and pressured by an increasingly assertive China, voters may be turning back to the LDP, which guided the country for most of the post-World War II era, after taking a chance on the Democrats and being let down.
Abe in particular has taken a tough stance toward Beijing in the election campaign amid a simmering dispute over some tiny islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
"I feel like the LDP will protect Japan and restore some national pride," Momoko Mihara, 31, said after voting for the Liberal Democrats in the western Tokyo suburb of Fuchu.
She said she has turned conservative partly in reaction to the negative portrayal of Japan's wartime past during her history classes in school.
"It made me feel ashamed to be Japanese, but now I feel that's so odd," Mihara said. "Why can't I be proud to be Japanese? I feel like the younger generation is becoming more conservative."
Hopes were high in 2009 that the Democrats would fulfil their promise to "put people's livelihoods first" and end the much-maligned pork-barrel politics of the LDP. But the DPJ failed to carry out numerous promises, including cash handouts to families with children, eradicating wasteful spending and moving a controversial U.S. military base off of the southern island of Okinawa.
Toshiyuki Kataoka, a 67-year-old retiree from Chiba, east of Tokyo, said that the Democrats proved to be novices running the country. "It was someone driving on a learner's permit," he said. But he's willing to support them again because he's worried about the nationalistic influence of the LDP.
"The LDP ruled for many years, and you can't expect the Democrats to fix everything in three years," he said. "Japan does seem to be turning to the right, and I don't want to be a part of that."
The country must also cope with an aging, shrinking population, a bulging national debt and intensifying competition from Asian neighbours such as South Korea, Taiwan and China.
"This election is about punishing the DPJ," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, suggesting the LDP's appeal may be its "brand image" as the "perpetual, natural party in power."
"It seems to me that people are driven by nostalgia, as they seem to want to bring the LDP back to power because they lack better alternatives," he said.
One upstart party that is drawing a fair amount of interest is the populist, right-leaning Japan Restoration Party, led by two of the country's most outspoken politicians, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who at 80 is nearly twice Hashimoto's age. Both exhibit forceful — critics would say dictatorial — leadership styles.
The brand new Tomorrow Party, led by a female governor, Yukiko Kada, wants to eliminate nuclear power plants within 10 years, opposes the tax hike and advocates more money for families. But its image has been tainted by linking up with former DPJ power broker Ichiro Ozawa, whom many Japanese voters don't trust.
If the LDP wins the most seats, the hawkish Abe would almost certainly get a second stab as prime minister. He would be Japan's seventh prime minister in about 6 1/2 years.
His previous tenure, a one-year stint in 2006-2007, was marked by a nationalistic agenda, pressing for more patriotic education and upgrading the defence agency to ministry status. Abe also said there was no proof Japan's military had coerced Chinese, Korean and other women into prostitution in military brothels during World War II. He later apologized but lately has suggested that a landmark 1993 apology for sex slavery may need revising.
The LDP platform calls developing fisheries and posting permanent staffing of public officials on the islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, and for revising Japan's pacifist constitution to strengthen Japan's military posture.
Beset with a host of domestic problems, Japan has been receding behind China as the region's most important economic player, and the promise of a strong, assertive country resonates with many voters, even if they are suspicious of doing that through military power.
"We want somebody who can be a tough diplomatic negotiator and who can exhibit strong leadership," said Seishi Kobayashi, a company employee in his 40s who is wavering between voting for the LDP or the upstart Japan Restoration Party.
But he cautioned that "whoever you vote may team up with parties with totally different policies, so you have to be careful."
With so much turnover in Japan's leadership — one prime minister a year over the last six years — Kataoka, the retiree from Chiba, wonders if the public's expectations are too high.
"It seems like we're searching for a messiah," he said.