The gloves are off, as parties began jockeying for votes across Japan yesterday - the first of 12 days of campaigning - before voters cast their ballots in a general election on Oct 22.
Some 1,180 candidates are in the running for 465 parliamentary seats, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and coalition partner Komeito fielding 385 candidates in all. They need 310 seats to retain their two-thirds "supermajority" in Parliament, or the Diet.
Key rival Kibo no To (Party of Hope) is fielding 235 candidates with its leader, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, 65, confirmed to be not running for the poll. Its ally Nippon Ishin No Kai (Japan Innovation Party) has 52.
The LDP and Kibo no To yesterday sparred over the meaning of "hope" for the future of Japan.
For the LDP, it meant to be able to resolutely defend the nation for the next generation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 63, said in disaster-ravaged Fukushima. And this, he said, would be through investing big in social security measures such as free early childhood education, to allow youth an equal start in life regardless of family background.
Like in previous elections, Mr Abe made his first campaign stop in the north-eastern prefectures stricken by a crippling earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011 when the nation was under opposition rule.
There, he stressed the LDP's track record as one that has brought stability to the nation after three years of opposition rule from 2009 to 2012.
LDP's Koizumi challenges turncoat Koike
TOKYO • In a gesture that is rather atypical of Japanese etiquette, political scion Shinjiro Koizumi arrived 20 minutes late for a stump speech in Ikebukuro in north-west Tokyo.
Yet his popularity was clear, with his arrival marked by rock-star treatment from the scores of spectators who lunged forward to catch a glimpse of the 36-year-old Mr Koizumi, the son of popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
He had made the journey from his home constituency of Yokosuka in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo, to the rally site by subway, the emcee explained. The journey, which requires one train transfer, takes about an hour and a half.
The star power of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) upstart was likely why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe entrusted rally duties in Tokyo to him, in his absence.
Mr Koizumi, a third-term lawmaker who has often been touted for higher office, was rallying on behalf of Mr Suzuki Hayato, 40, a one-term LDP lawmaker. And he opened his speech by addressing the elephant in the room: former LDP member Yuriko Koike. The 65-year-old Tokyo Governor has founded the Kibo no To (Party of Hope) to take on the LDP in the Oct 22 election.
"I would like to thank Ms Koike from the bottom of my heart, for founding the party and giving us all the chance to reflect upon what 'true hope' really means for the nation," Mr Koizumi said.
His address came a mere two hours after Ms Koike spoke to a much smaller crowd at the same venue, stumping for LDP defector and close aide Masaru Wakasa, who is the ward's incumbent lawmaker.
But Ms Koike, a former news anchor, is not without appeal of her own, with some heeding her call to turn up in green, which is the campaign colour that she first came to adopt in her successful run for Tokyo Governor - against the LDP's wishes.
Since its return to power in December 2012, he said, the LDP has proven to be the safest pair of hands for disaster reconstruction efforts, and to steer the nation through threats such as North Korea and a demographic crisis.
With Mr Abe away in the north-east, the task of leading the LDP's charge in Tokyo yesterday fell on political princeling Shinjiro Koizumi, 36, a brooding but charismatic politician who has won legions of supporters. He is the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and has often been touted as a future leader of Japan.
The younger Mr Koizumi told the lunchtime crowd in Tokyo's northwestern hub of Ikebukuro, two hours after Ms Koike spoke there: "True hope lies in the power of youth and in the next generation."
Ms Koike had said that hope is - and will be - missing for the future given Mr Abe's lack of progress in areas such as gender equality and wage growth. She also called for a delay in a tax hike until the people are able to feel the impact of economic growth.
Lingering questions over his involvement in two cronyism scandals, too, meant Mr Abe was not the best person to fulfil "the politicians' role to give people hope and dreams", she charged. "We will win back people's trust in politics and break this 'Abe First' tendency."
Even then, media polls show that Kibo no To has been losing steam. A weekend poll of 1,099 people by the Yomiuri daily showed 32 per cent intended to vote for the LDP. Kibo no To came in at 13 per cent, down a whopping six points.
Retired civil servant Kazuo Ichikawa, 67, told The Straits Times that while he has long been an LDP supporter, he could not help but feel that Mr Abe has not been forthcoming in responding to the scandals.
"Given the similar ideological platforms of the LDP and Kibo no To, I have a lot to think about," he said, calling it his "toughest voting decision so far".