TOKYO - And the gloves are off.
Parties began jockeying for votes across Japan on Tuesday (Oct 10), the first of 12 days of official election campaigning before voters go to the polls in less than two weeks on Oct 22.
The meaning of "hope" for voters took centre stage at campaign rallies by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the nascent Kibo No To (Party Of Hope), led by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, 65, which are regarded as the front runners of this election.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 63, as per previous elections, made his first stop at the disaster-stricken north-east that is still recovering from the crippling earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011, when Japan was under opposition Democratic Party of Japan rule.
He left popular political blue-blood Shinjiro Koizumi, 36, to lead the LDP's campaign efforts in Tokyo on the first day. While Mr Koizumi was 20 minutes late for the noon rally, he received rock-star treatment on his arrival with thronging crowds rushing forward to snap photographs. The emcee had pre-empted his arrival by announcing that Mr Koizumi had come from his home constituency of Yokosuka in nearby Kanagawa prefecture by subway.
Mr Koizumi told the crowds in Tokyo's north-western hub of Ikebukuro: "I have to thank Ms Koike from the bottom of my heart. Her creation of the Party Of Hope has given me the opportunity to reflect on what the meaning of 'true hope' is for me, and for the LDP."
And true hope, he added, "lies in youth and the next generation".
The LDP pledges to invest big in social security measures aimed at giving youth an equal start in life irrespective of their family background, including free early childhood education.
Mr Abe has framed the election as a referendum on how additional revenue from an increase in the sales tax from 8 per cent to 10 per cent in October 2019 will be spent. Some 80 per cent of the additional revenue was meant to be used to repay government debt, but Mr Abe now wants to allocate the sum to social security measures as well, in a 50-50 split.
Speaking in Fukushima, he stressed the LDP's track record as one that has brought stability to the nation after three years of opposition rule, and said his party will be the safest pair of hands to see through reconstruction efforts, and steer the country through such imminent threats as North Korea and a demographic crisis.
Ms Koike, meanwhile, said hope is not only for the young but also for the elderly and for women, as she stressed measures to continuously help the old "learn until the end of life".
She also highlighted what she terms as "failures" of Mr Abe's nearly five years in power thus far, including gender equality. "In 2013, Mr Abe told the United Nations that he wanted to 'build a society where women can shine' but since then Japan has been dropping in global gender equality rankings," she said. "Does this produce a feeling of hope?"
She stressed that the status quo with the LDP in power amounted to a "black box of Japanese politics" that favours vested interests, highlighting how Mr Abe has not done enough to address questions over two cronyism scandals that sunk his support ratings this year.
"Even Mr Abe's calling of a snap election now - more than one year ahead of time - speaks of an 'Abe First' tendency."
At least 1,177 candidates are contesting the 465 seats, according to a tally by public broadcaster NHK. Candidates have until 5pm (4pm Singapore time) to register.
As of 3.30pm, there were 332 registered candidates from the LDP, and 235 from Kibo No To.
Another 53 people are running under the banner of the Komeito, LDP's junior coalition partner, and 52 under the banner of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), which has entered into an alliance with Kibo.
The opposition Japanese Communist Party is fielding 243 candidates, and the nascent Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, 78. The rest are running on the platforms of either smaller opposition parties, or as independent candidates.
A weekend poll by the Yomiuri newspaper showed the Kibo No To to be losing steam, after Ms Koike declined to stand for election. Some 32 per cent plan to vote for Mr Abe's conservative LDP with 13 per cent in favour of the Kibo No To, down six percentage points from a previous survey.
Retired civil servant Kazuo Ichikawa, 67, said that while he has long been an LDP supporter, he could not help but feel that Mr Abe was not being forthcoming over the cronyism scandals.
"Given the similar platforms of the LDP and Kibo No To, I have a lot to think about," he said, adding that in the LDP's favour was stability, while in Kibo's favour, the chance for cleaner politics.