Japan ready to vote in major shift in leadership?

National polls Sunday could oust the long-ruling Liberal Democrats. Voter participation is expected to be high.

By , Deputy International Editor

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    Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso (l.) leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, shakes hands with people during a campaign rally for Aug. 30 parliament's lower house elections at Kumagaya, north of Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday.
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Japan without the LDP? The prospect might just be galvanizing enough to get apathetic voters to national polls on Sunday.

The Liberal Democratic Party is the face of Japan's postwar politics. They're the guys who ran the political show as Japan emerged from occupation to build itself into an export-driven powerhouse. They're also the ones who have become associated with a sense of ennui and clubbiness that made last year's party election of current Prime Minister Taro Aso about as exciting as watching grass grow.

So to send them packing? It could portend a significant shift for a country that many view as having faltered badly after a sparkling run in the '80s as an economic superpower.

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A poll by broadcaster NHK indicates that 90 percent of voters planned to go to the polls – a sharp rise from the 68 percent who voted in lower house elections four years ago, reports The New York Times. And Agence France-Presse notes that young people may raise their voices in a way not seen lately in a country that focuses more on the older set (with good reason – Japan is one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world).

Taking the helm, most likely, would be the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Surveys indicate the party could be poised to capture some 300 seats in Japan's 480-seat lower house of parliament. Their platform, as the Monitor earlier reported, tips populist, with promises to boost consumer spending, give consumers more money by offering tax credits to families with children, make gas cheaper; and eliminate highway tolls.

A DPJ win would catapult Yukio Hatoyama, an engineer who received his training at Stanford University, to power. He's not saying anything that would get the United States too worried. In an opinion piece in the Monitor (click here), he vowed that "the Japan-US security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy." But he also criticized freewheeling globalization, noting that "Our responsibility as politicians is to refocus our attention on those non-economic values that have been thrown aside by the march of globalism."

Mr. Hatoyama also posited that the time for "an East Asian community" had come. "[We] must continue to make efforts to build frameworks for stable economic cooperation and national security across the region," he said.

For Japanese voters, the key issue seems to be a deep-seated desire for a little political dynamism in dealing with entrenched problems, including a rapidly aging society. As political analyst Minoru Morita put it: "More people's lives have begun to crumble and many smaller businesses are on the verge of collapse. I can hear a collective groan coming from all over Japan."

Will they get it? The DPJ platform is not radically different from that of the LDP. They're not as experienced at government. But their election could blow a fresh breeze through Japan's political and bureaucratic establishment – and energize a public that has become disillusioned about the country's politics in recent years, as the Monitor reported recently.

"The election victory of the DPJ also means that it will be the first time in history that the Japanese people voted a change of government," says Masayasu Kitagawa, a former governor of Mie Prefecture and now the director of the Research Institute of Manifesto at Waseda University in Tokyo. "The people certainly have become excited. I'm sure we will see a high turnout."

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Japan's politics got you down? Find an antidote in the vibrant cultural scene.
The country has become a leader in 'soft power' influence – from anime to the Toyota Prius to a town that plans to become waste-free by 2020. Check out our 3-part Japan Influential series to find out more.

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Follow Asia Bureau Chief Peter Ford's upcoming reports about Japan's pivotal vote on Twitter.

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