TOKYO — Leaders of Japan's major political parties kicked off campaigning Tuesday for this month's parliamentary elections in nuclear crisis-hit Fukushima prefecture, where more than 100,000 people remain displaced from their homes.
Nuclear energy and reviving the stagnant economy are key issues in the Dec. 16 election, which Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's unpopular Democratic Party of Japan is expected to lose after three years in power.
But with polls showing more than 40 percent of voters are undecided, many are not excited about any particular party. No one party has even 20 percent of the public's support, according to one recent survey.
The opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era, is leading in polls but unlikely to win a majority in the 480-member lower house of parliament.
The most likely outcome of the election is a coalition government composed of parties that could have competing interests. That would mean more gridlock despite urgent needs to tackle Japan's many complex problems, from reining in its national debt and coping with a graying population to reconstructing communities wiped out by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people and triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
"By starting right here, we are reaffirming our belief that the reconstruction of Japan is not possible without the reconstruction of Fukushima. We hope to start Japan's rebirth," Noda told supporters in Iwaki. The city is just southwest of the 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone surrounding the nuclear plant, which spewed radiation into the surrounding farmland and ocean.
In Fukushima city, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of the plant, LDP's hawkish leader Shinzo Abe told crowds that his party could be trusted to revive the economy and restore national confidence.
"We need an economy that will reward our sweat and hard work and make us wealthy and increase our income," said Abe, the front-runner to become the next prime minister. "We will create a Japan in which those born in this country will feel joy, and regain a nation in which our children will be proud to be born in Japan. I ask you to lend us your hand."
For Kazuo Okawa, a plumber who had worked at the Fukushima plant as a contractor, politicians' speeches are an empty show. He said no candidates have come to the evacuation center where he lives, a former high school near Tokyo where 160 people still remain.
Government officials concede they don't know when residents who lived around the nuclear plant will be able to return to their homes.
"Those politicians are discussing policies in Tokyo, Osaka or wherever, far away from us. We've always had to reach out for help," Okawa said in a telephone interview.
Still, he said he is closely watching the elections. He is now opposed to nuclear power, a position held by most Japanese, polls show.
Noda's DPJ says it plans to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s. The newly formed Tomorrow Party of Japan is going further, calling for a nuclear-free society within 10 years, although plans for how it would support alternative forms of energy are sketchy.
The traditionally pro-nuclear LDP says it wants Japan to be less reliant on atomic energy, but wants to review energy policy over the next 10 years to determine the right mix. Abe says it irresponsible to call for eliminating nuclear power at this point.
Before the March 11, 2011, disaster, Japan depended on nuclear energy for about a third of its electricity needs. Now only two reactors of 50 are operating, and there is widespread debate over how many more should be restarted – if any – while Japan develops other sources of power.
"This is the first national election since 3/11. We are aiming for a society without nuclear power, zero nuclear power," Yukiko Kada, head of the Tomorrow Party and governor of Shiga prefecture, told listeners in the village of Iitate, just outside the exclusion zone.
Farther north, along Japan's tsunami-battered northeastern coast, people who lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones are feeling forgotten by the government, which seems preoccupied not only with economic and nuclear woes, but also with a diplomatic spat with China over a cluster of tiny, uninhabited islands claimed by both countries.
"It doesn't really matter who wins (the election). It's not going to change things for us," said Yaeko Tabata, a woman in her 50s from the obliterated town of Minami-Sanriku. She has opened a hair salon in a rented trailer on a hill above the barren town.
Much of the rubble in town has been cleaned up, but virtually no rebuilding has begun amid delays in drawing up town layouts and dealing with government red tape for funding. Townsfolk live in rows of cramped, government-built temporary houses, surrounded by empty fields and concrete foundations where houses once stood.
Fueling the tsunami victims' frustration was a government audit last month that showed about a quarter of the 11.7 trillion yen ($148 billion) budgeted for disaster reconstruction was actually winding up in unrelated projects, from a contact lens factory in central Japan to road construction in the faraway southern island of Okinawa.
"That was shocking. How did that money end up in Okinawa?" asked Osamu Takahashi, the owner a small eatery in a cluster of about 20 pre-fabricated shops in Minami-Sanriku. "You get the feeling the government doesn't care."
Since the release of the audit, the government has suspended 35 projects in the reconstruction budget that were deemed not to be directly related to disaster recovery – but this amounted to just a fraction of the overall figure of misdirected funds.
Dissatisfaction over the government has helped new parties gain momentum. Running second to the LDP in recent polls is the Japan Restoration Party, led by Tokyo's outspoken former governor Shintaro Ishihara.
Ishihara stirred up Japan's territorial dispute with China when he proposed back in April that Tokyo would buy and develop islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The central government stepped in, buying the islands to Beijing's chagrin, but saying it had no plans to develop them.
Ishihara's party got backing from 10.4 percent of would-be voters in a Kyodo News agency poll over the weekend, second behind the LDP, which received support from 18.4 percent. The DPJ was third with 9.3 percent.
The New Komeito party, backed by the large lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, was fourth with 4.8 percent and the new Tomorrow Party was fifth with 3.5 percent.
Associated Press Writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.