Official campaigning begins for upper house race in Japan

Official campaigning started Thursday for an upper house election later this month that will be a key test of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's leadership over the past seven months.

Political party leaders hit the streets, calling for voters' support in the July 21 House of Councillors election. Abe, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party, began his campaign trail in Fukushima Prefecture, an area badly hit by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

"We cannot proceed with reconstruction as well as economic revival if the Diet remains divided. I want to end it," Abe said in a stump speech, referring to the dominance of opposition parties in the upper house.

He has set the goal of wresting control of the chamber and solidifying his power base to achieve key policy objectives, including revitalizing the economy and revising the nation's pacifist Constitution to enhance its defense capabilities.

"I will end the contorted relationship between the two chambers of parliament and secure stability in politics," Abe told reporters.

Banri Kaieda, leader of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, delivered a stump speech in Iwate Prefecture, also located in quake-hit northeastern Japan.

"Japan is now standing at a turning point. It will be too late if we come to regret having moved in the wrong direction," Kaieda said, criticizing Abe's policies.

Opposition parties are facing an uphill battle to erode relatively high support rates for Abe's government, launched in December after the LDP trounced the DPJ in a general election and returned to power after three years in opposition.

Half of the 242 seats in the upper house are up for grabs every three years under a combination of constituencies and proportional representation. As of 12:20 p.m., 433 people had filed candidacy for the 121 seats at stake.

The LDP and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, need to win a total of 63 seats to secure a majority, as they already hold 59 seats that will not be contested this time.

The ruling camp has an overwhelming majority in the more powerful House of Representatives. But lacking control in the upper chamber makes it difficult for the government to push its policy agenda through the Diet.

Abe was forced to step down as prime minister in 2007 amid political deadlock in the divided Diet that stemmed from his defeat in an upper house election the same year.

His economic policy drive, dubbed "Abenomics," to turn nearly two decades of deflation into mild inflation with monetary and fiscal stimulus and private-sector investment will be one of the focuses in the election. Abe has pointed to a recovery in Japanese stock prices as evidence his policies are working.

"The real economy has been improving. We have no other way (than Abenomics) to beat deflation," Abe told voters.

New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said in Saitama Prefecture, "The major focus (of the election) is how to beat deflation."

By contrast, opposition parties highlighted concerns about possible downsides of Abenomics such as higher consumer prices at a time when wage increases have yet to be implemented by many companies.

"If the LDP wins this election, your livelihoods will be endangered," Kaieda told his audience. "We must face off against the Abe administration, which will destroy people's lives."

The Japan Restoration Party, co-headed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, has criticized Abenomics for not sufficiently pursuing deregulation in sectors such as agriculture and electricity. "The LDP has momentum but cannot implement in-depth reforms. We should not allow it to win everything," Hashimoto said in Osaka.

Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe told voters in Tokyo that Japan must end politics controlled by bureaucrats. Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii also spoke in the capital, pledging to seek comprehensive reforms from the viewpoint of ordinary citizens.

Kuniko Tanioka, who represents the Green Wind party, said in Tokyo that it will seek policies desirable for women, while Mizuho Fukushima told voters in Yokohama that the Social Democratic Party will oppose Abe's attempt to revise the country's Constitution.

Katsumasa Suzuki, secretary general of the People's Life Party, said in Nagoya that the party, headed by Ichiro Ozawa, will seek to address income disparities in Japanese society.

Candidates and parties are allowed for the first time to employ e-mail and social networking sites for their campaigning, after the Diet enacted legislation in April to lift the ban on online campaigning in an attempt to counter political apathy, especially among the youth.