Candidates made their last-ditch appeals Saturday across Japan for the House of Councillors election, as the country reels over the death of Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister who was gunned down during a campaign speech a day earlier.
Under tighter security, major political leaders across party lines spoke of their resolve not to succumb to any act of violence intended to suppress freedom of speech, rallying support from voters who go to the polls on Sunday.
Abe, the longest-serving Japanese prime minister, was fatally shot during his stump speech in Nara, western Japan. The shooting sent shockwaves through the Liberal Democratic Party, to which he belonged, political circles, business leaders and ordinary citizens Friday, as 18 days of campaigning neared its end.
The triennial election is an opportunity for voters to deliver their verdict on the performance of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who has vowed to take steps to mitigate the blow from rising prices and bolster the country's defense amid Russia's war in Ukraine.
"We will never give in to violence. I will stand before you until the very end (of this campaign)," Kishida said in Yamanashi Prefecture near Tokyo.
Kishida, who serves as the LDP's head, stood on top of a campaign car as he delivered his speech to supporters about five meters away. He ditched customary fist bumps with voters and only waved his hands.
The premier has strongly condemned the shooting as a "barbaric act" that challenged "the foundation of democracy but said Sunday's election should go as planned to ensure freedom and fairness.
In the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, Kenta Izumi, who leads the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, also talked to voters while accompanied by more police officers than before Abe's death.
"This should never have taken place. We should not yield to terrorism," Izumi said.
A total of 125 seats are up for grabs in the election -- nearly half of the 248-member upper chamber and one to fill a vacancy in the other uncontested half. The chamber had 245 seats, and three were newly added as part of electoral system reform.
Abe was a member of the more powerful House of Representatives.
Kishida has set a goal for the coalition of the LDP and its junior partner Komeito to retain a majority in the whole of the upper chamber, including those uncontested.
Threats to democracy and the rule of law are apparently in voters' minds after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Kishida's government has condemned the war as a unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force that shakes the foundation of the international order.
Inflation is also a hot-button issue.
Kishida has blamed it on the war, while the CDPJ has labeled the rising price trend as "Kishida inflation."
Higher energy and food prices are feared to cool consumer sentiment at a time when the world's third-largest economy has yet to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic shock.
A weak yen, a byproduct of bold monetary easing by the Bank of Japan, has also inflated import costs for resource-poor Japan.
"Mr. Abe was right in seeking to revive the economy with his 'Abenomics,'" Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's coalition partner Komeito, said in Kanagawa Prefecture next to Tokyo. "We will continue to move ahead on this path."
The Abenomics economy-boosting program entailed a mix of the BOJ's monetary easing and fiscal stimulus.
In the campaign, the LDP is also pushing for an increase in defense spending to fundamentally reinforce its defense posture amid threats from neighbors, including an assertive China, nuclear-armed North Korea and Russia.
The ruling party has in mind an increase in defense outlays to a level equivalent to 2 percent or more of Japan's gross domestic product, though Komeito and major opposition parties like the CDPJ say its substance, not size, should come first.
One key barometer to watch is whether pro-amendment forces can retain the two-thirds majority needed to initiate any proposal to amend the Constitution for the first time, an LDP goal pushed by Abe and maintained by Kishida.
The Japan Innovation Party aims to become the biggest opposition party after Sunday's election by expanding its support base beyond its stronghold in the western Japanese region of Kansai, centering Osaka.
The other opposition parties, including the Democratic Party for the People, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party also sought to woo voters until the last minute of campaigning.