Subsequently, after a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that followed the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, DPJ officials were weeks and months late in admitting key information about the severity of the accident. The DPJ’s second prime minister, Naoto Kan, resigned, giving way to Noda.
Noda proved a competent leader, many pundits say, even winning cross-party support for a controversial tax hike. But in the process he alienated key members of his own party, who defected. And as a center-right hawk, he had little interest in the party’s original populist promises. Recent audits have also shown that the government has burned billions of dollars from its reconstruction budget — intended for the northeastern area of the country that was devastated by the the tsunami — on unrelated projects, undercutting the DPJ pledge that it would cut away wasteful spending.
“The government has not grasped the conditions in the affected region,” said Seiji Sato, a city official in Rikuzentakata, a coastal town trying to rebuild.
‘Punishing the DPJ’
On the campaign trail, Noda has blamed the LDP for Japan’s two-decade stagnation, saying the party’s notorious public works projects ramped up the national debt without spurring the economy.
“Do we want to go back in time like that?” he asked.
The answer appears to be yes. According to polls conducted monthly by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, support for the DPJ has been under 20 percent since November 2011. During that time, anywhere between 52 and 33.5 percent of Japanese say they support no party at all.
“It appears to me that the election is about punishing the DPJ,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Politicians see an opportunity to fill the DPJ’s void. In recent months mayors, regional governors, movie stars and DPJ defectors have all started their own parties. Several of the highest-profile ones have quickly formed alliances or mergers designed to broaden their appeal. But some pundits say the third parties have instead muddled their purpose.
A popular, far-right wing regional party in Osaka, for instance, linked up with former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. But Ishihara, who hinted recently that Japan should acquire nuclear weapons if it wants to be taken more seriously, almost immediately second-guessed the party’s pledge to “phase out” nuclear power.
The minor parties are “opportunistic,” said Jun Iio, a professor of government at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “That is the problem. They are trying to get easy support, so they go for the easy answer.”
According to a recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, 71 percent of voters struggle to differentiate between the parties’ campaign platforms.
“It’s a little bit chaotic right now,” Iio said.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.