'Change Tokyo, Change Japan'

It is 6 a.m. in front of the railroad station in Musashi-Sakai, a western suburb of Tokyo, and Reiko Matsushita is already up and campaigning. She stands in front of the station entrance buttonholing commuters as they head for the trains to go to work.

For the next three hours, she will bow and repeat her name over and over again, while her campaign supporters hand out flyers to those who will take them. Most of the commuters walk past her, their heads held down, hurrying to catch their commuter trains.

Matsushita, 38, is a first-term member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, the legislature of the capital, and is running for a second four-year term as a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DJP). Four years ago she defeated a longstanding member of the governing party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), for the seat, and she is fighting hard to retain it in a rematch.

Technically, the election to be decided on July 12, is a local election for the Tokyo legislature, but everyone knows that it is basically a warm-up match for the main event, a national and potentially historic general election that must be held by September when the current Diet's (parliament) five-year term expires.

A recent poll indicated that 55 percent of the respondents in the Tokyo election will base their vote not so much on the local issues but on their judgment of the national government and Prime Minister Taro Aso. The opposition hopes that a good showing in Tokyo will be the final push that allows it to displace the LDP in the first democratic change of government in modern Japanese history.

The Democrats have taken former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's winning slogan from the 2005 general election: “Change the LDP, change Japan” and turned it around. “Let's change Tokyo and change Japan,” shouted DJP president Yukio Hatoyama at a downtown rally. With the stakes so high, both sides are pulling out the stops.

Seiji Maehara, a Diet member and vice-president of the DJP, certain to hold a major cabinet post if his party wins the next general election, joins Matsushita in front of the Musashi-Sakai railroad station to lend her support and urge the surging commuters to support his party in the Tokyo election.

Matsushita will spend the rest of the day roaming her district in a sound truck, repeating her name over and over on the loudspeaker, a grueling day of campaigning that will culminate in a rally in front of another railroad station, where she will be joined by another senior party leader, acting DJP president Naoto Kan.

His voice is raw from a full day of haranguing crowds of potential voters. It is 8 p.m. when he winds up, but he still has two more engagements at two more railroad stations. Kan, who holds a Tokyo Diet seat, has been assigned the task of assuring victory in the capital as a springboard to victory in the national election.

Kan was the only Tokyo DJP member to retain his Diet seat in the 2005 election debacle that saw the LDP capture 23 of Tokyo's 25 single-member Diet seats, ousting Democrats. The party is hoping to regain 14-15 of those seats in the national election later this year, DJP leader Maehara said.

The LDP is working the political hustings heavily too. Prime Minister Aso put in an appearance in a rural distant corner of Tokyo before flying off to attend the G-8 Meeting in Italy. Tokyo's governor, the famous nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, is also campaigning strenuously for his party, the Liberal Democratic Party.

Ishihara's job is not on the line in the election. Prefectural governors are directly elected in Japan, just like state governors in the U.S., and are not dependent on a majority in the legislature. Still, a majority in the legislature is good to have, and Ishihara is fighting hard to keep it.

Currently, the LDP enjoys a 70-seat majority in alliance with another party in the 127-seat city assembly, while the DJP holds 34. The opposition is fielding 64 candidates, so if all were to win, a big if, it would give the DJP a one-vote majority. That may be a bridge too far, but polls show that the opposition party should increase its representation significantly.

Matsushita and her supporters hammer away at Ishihara for his support in moving the world-famous Tsukiji fish market from its traditional location in downtown Tokyo and his brainchild, the ShinGinko Tokyo (New Tokyo Bank), which has sucked up some ¥150 billion in public money..

The Democratic Party of Japan has been on a roll lately, having won a string of local victories, most recently the governorship of Shizuoka prefecture south of Tokyo. The opposition party seems to have recovered fully from the political contributions scandal that forced their former leader Ichiro Ozawa to resign.

(Ozawa is one of the few prominent Japanese political figures who has not been been campaigning in the Tokyo election, but then he is more focused on winning the party votes from rural, remote and distressed areas of Japan, places he has been visiting frequently).

After a brief uptick, Prime Minister Aso's poll numbers have sunk again. The despair over election prospects is palpable among LDP members, especially those who won marginal seats on Koizumi's coattails in 2005. Though it seems farfetched at this late date, there are still calls for Aso to resign or be replaced before the general election.

Some backbenchers have circulated a petition calling for another party presidential election before the general election to find a new leader. The petition is on hold during the Tokyo election, but could easily be revived if the party suffers a big defeat on July 12.

But for a party that has changed leaders three times since the last election, the idea of putting forward another face is not appealing, against what seems like a united opposition party sensing victory now within its grasp. But to retain the unpopular Aso is equally unpalatable. And time is rapidly running out.