By Richard Smart
As Japanese voters prepare to go to the polls on Sunday, few would put money on the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) maintaining power, fewer still would bet on the nation's political landscape staying the same.
Under the leadership of Yukio Hatoyama, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) looks likely to win a large majority in the lower house of the Diet -- it won a majority in the upper house in 2007. However, the consensus is that Japan's public is voting against the LDP, rather than voting for the DPJ.
Be that as it may, the DPJ has set out in its manifesto a number of goals that, if achieved, will bring dramatic changes to Japan. As well as aiming to change the structure of decision-making in the Diet, the party also aims to distribute money to young families and improve social services.
Questioning the party's ability to do this has become the crux of the LDP and New Komeito's campaign. In videos, the DPJ is depicted as being irresponsible, and Taro Aso's response to Hatoyama's "seiken kotai" (political change) is to claim his party "sekinin-ryoku" (literally, "responsibility power"). And so the battle lines are drawn, do voters want a party that aims for change, or to keep a party in power that claims it will act responsibly?
Whether the campaign has changed anything is up for question. " People are so fed up and frustrated with the LDP, they would elect a dog catcher," said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University.
What's in a manifesto?
Six years ago, Japan introduced election manifestos to campaigning for the first time. This year, the two big parties, the DPJ and LDP released their manifestos long before campaigning officially started on Aug. 18 for the election.
For this year's election, the DPJ has used the slogan "seiken kotai" (political change), as it attempts to present itself as the party that can get Japan out of a slump it has been in since the economic bubble burst in the late 1980s. This stance is not without its critics.
"The DPJ has been playing a rather contradictory game, on the one hand saying that they represent change, while also saying that voters need not be afraid because nothing much is going to be different," says Koichi Nakano, an associate professor of political science at Sophia University.
By taking this position, however, the DPJ is perhaps to play down fears stoked by the LDP, who are arguing that through their experience in government, they have "the ability and strength to be responsible for protecting Japan," a stance that has drawn the ire of many critics.
"The LDP is running on the slogan "anshin shakai" (safe society) . Talk about a bumbling slogan. All this does is remind people which party is responsible for less secure jobs and losing their pensions," said Kingston.
This point is perhaps reinforced by figures released on Friday, which showed that Japan's unemployment rate in July stood at 5.7 percent -- the highest figure ever.
The biggest talking point of this summer's campaign has been the concept of "hidden treasure," money that can be recovered from an LDP budget allegedly full of wasteful spending, leaving the government with trillions of yen extra to spend on social-welfare programs to improve Japanese society.
At a Monday news conference, Masashi Yumoto, a professor at Kyorin University and an expert on Japanese finance said that he believed the DPJ was relying too much on the "hidden treasures" and that he very much doubted that the party would be able to get as much money as they believed from this area.
However, as analyst with Observing Japan Tobias Harris pointed out, "One can disagree with the DPJ's proposals, but it does lay them out unambiguously and provides some figures on how much it intends to spend on various programs."