More than half a century of all but uncontested political leadership in Japan appears set to end this weekend, as voters elect new parliamentary representatives. Polls indicate a center-left party is set to topple conservatives who are viewed by many as out of touch with the average Japanese family. The election may recast how Japan views itself and its relations with the international community.
Just days before the election, polls continue to support the widely held belief that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso will experience a crushing defeat in Sunday's vote for the lower house of the country's parliament.
One major late-week poll indicated at least twice as many voters would cast ballots for the Democratic Party of Japan, led by the country's likely next Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama.
At recent rallies, Hatoyama told supporters, the day has come to change the history of Japan. He calls on them to step into the new era with courage.
480 lower house seats are at stake in Sunday's vote. Some political experts have predicted the DPJ may capture as many as 300 of those, giving it a resounding mandate in both the upper and lower house. The LDP has controlled Japan's parliament almost without interruption for 55 years.
Jeffrey Kingston, Director Of Asian Studies at Japan's Temple University, says the DPJ lead does not indicate the party has swept voters off their feet.
"Clearly this is not a vote for the DPJ," he said. "It's a vote against the LDP. People are fed up."
The ruling LDP enraged Japanese voters last year when it announced it had "misplaced" the pension records of millions of aging voters. Kingston says the public also blames the LDP for Japan's economic hardship.
"People have seen the misery index soar out of control over the past ten months," he said. "Unemployment is up, foreclosures and bankruptcies are up, suicides are up-- and wages, bonuses, and job security are down. So there's nothing to like about this scenario."
The DPJ's Hatoyama has promised to overhaul the entire social contract in Japan - promising government financial support for child care and the elderly, while stripping power from the country's entrenched bureaucracy. He has also signalled that he will re-examine Japan's role in the international community.
Taniguchi Tomohiko is a professor at Japan's Meiji University and an advisor to the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. He says the DPJ is likely to shift Japan's regional focus.
"They [DPJ] are openly arguing that given where Japan is, Japan should cut a good balance between its time-honored alliance with the United States, and its growing importance of having a good relationship with China," said Tomohiko. "By so saying, it is obvious that [the] Democrats are leaning slightly toward China and distancing little from the United States."
Taniguchi says the DPJ has sent some mixed signals about how it will deal with the approximately 50,000 U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
"They're saying that the U.S. military should be reduced, in terms of its footprint, from Japan and the next day they will say no significant change could happen even if we are in office," he said. "So, objectively speaking, many people should be scratching their heads."
A DPJ government is expect to maintain a firm policy line on North Korea - viewed by many Japanese as a direct threat.