TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's government on Friday confirmed the date of Upper House elections next month, with opinion polls tipping a big win for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's party, clearing the way for him to push through much-needed economic reforms.
A Cabinet meeting declared voters would be asked to choose half of the 242-member House of Councillors on July 21. Official campaigning will start on Thursday for the first national test of public sentiment since Mr Abe took office in December with a pledge to pull the world's third-largest economy out of 15 years of deflation.
Voters in Tokyo on Sunday endorsed his policy blitz, dubbed "Abenomics", when they handed his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a landslide victory in elections for the city's Metropolitan Assembly. The vote was widely seen as a dress rehearsal for the Upper House poll.
"Abenomics", which blends massive monetary easing, big fiscal spending and a series of reforms aimed at freeing up businesses, has dominated the opening months of the administration. Japan's long-slumbering economy has been startled into life by the moves, with the once painfully strong yen losing some of its steam and the Nikkei 225 stock index rocketing to multi-year highs.
Economic figures released on Friday provided more good news, with the country's factories showing a creditable 2 per cent jump in production levels.
Despite a nervy few weeks that have seen volatility in the stock market and a resurgence of the yen, voters still overwhelmingly approve of Mr Abe, with opinion polls showing more than 60 per cent think he is on the right track. No party currently has a majority in the Upper House, whose 242 members each serve six years. Half the seats are contested alternately every three years.
If Mr Abe can secure control of the Upper House, it will relieve a legislative bottleneck and give him free rein to push through painful reforms commentators say Japan desperately needs.
The LDP's main opponents, the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan, are currently the largest grouping in the assembly, but are riven by infighting and still smarting from the kicking voters gave them in December.
Parties have begun revealing their policy platforms ahead of the official start of campaigning, which, for the first time ever, will also be done online after a change in the law.
The Japan Restoration Party, headed jointly by outspoken Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, said on Thursday it would "make historical facts clear" about wartime military brothels.
The pledge came after Mr Hashimoto landed himself in hot water by suggesting "comfort women" - a Japanese euphemism for sex slaves - were a wartime necessity.
Historians say up to 200,000 sex slaves from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forcibly drafted into Japanese brothels.
The former TV pundit fought his corner over a week of controversy, including an appearance in front of international journalists, where he said Japan should apologise to former sex slaves but that its soldiers were not unique in brutalising women.