Japanese politicians yesterday drew their battle lines ahead of a December 16 election that is likely to return the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party to power under a conservative former premier, raising concerns about the future of Tokyo's already chilly ties with Beijing.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda urged voters to shun jingoism after rival LDP leader Shinzo Abe, who has vowed not to yield in a territorial row with China, said he would build a strong Japan.
The election for parliament's lower house is expected to usher in Japan's seventh prime minister in six years, but it is unlikely to fix a policy stalemate that has plagued the country struggling to cope with an ageing population, a declining manufacturing sector and China's emerging power.
"This fight is about restoring Japan. We will regain a strong economy," Abe, whose party is tipped to come out on top in the poll, told a news conference after the lower house of parliament was dissolved.
"We'll restore foreign policy. We will strongly appeal to voters on the need to restore the Japan-US alliance, which was badly damaged by the Democratic Party government.
"That will help us defend our beautiful country, territories and national interests," he said, echoing an agenda he floated during his 2006-2007 term as prime minister.
Seeking to draw a distinction from the LDP, Noda framed the vote as a choice between moving forward with reform or turning back the clock. The LDP ruled Japan for most of the past six decades before Noda's Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory three years ago.
Noda warned of the dangers of just talking tough in diplomacy. "Healthy nationalism is necessary, but if one goes to extremes, it becomes jingoism," he told a news conference.
"Diplomatic and security policies influenced by such an atmosphere are a danger for Japan."
Policies in the spotlight include the role of the central bank in reviving an economy slipping into its fourth recession since 2000; the future of nuclear power after last year's Fukushima disaster, and whether Japan should take part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US-led trade pact that Noda favours joining but which would open up protected markets in Japan.
The president of Toyota Motor Corp, Akio Toyoda, who heads the car industry's lobby group, said: "We want a leader who can understand the difficulties that the people are going through, someone who can lead to create a country and society where those who work hard are rewarded."