Official campaigning for three House of Representatives by-elections began in Japan on Tuesday, with the races to serve as crucial tests of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's leadership as he seeks to ride out a political funds scandal that has rocked his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Up for grabs in the votes on April 28 are seats in three electoral districts in Tokyo as well as in Shimane and Nagasaki prefectures, all of which were held by the LDP before becoming vacant.

Facing headwinds following the scandal that exposed massive undeclared funds distributed among its lawmakers, the LDP has decided not to field candidates in the Tokyo No. 15 and Nagasaki No. 3 districts, focusing instead on defending the seat in the Shimane No. 1 district of the western prefecture, considered a conservative stronghold.

People listen to stump speeches in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture, on April 16, 2024, as official campaigning for a House of Representatives by-election there began. (Kyodo)

In Shimane's capital of Matsue, Yuko Obuchi, the LDP's election campaign chief, said, "We will push ahead with political and party reforms with tireless determination to restore public trust."

In Tokyo, Kenta Izumi, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told Kyodo News his party "must not lose" the three polls.

Failure to secure even one victory could further erode Kishida's standing in the LDP and prompt the party to advocate for a more popular leader. Such a move would deal a blow to Kishida as he seeks to be re-elected as LDP leader in September and continue as prime minister.

The Shimane by-election, which followed the death of former lower house speaker and LDP heavyweight Hiroyuki Hosoda in November, is a battle between the LDP and CDPJ.

The LDP's local branch is bracing for a tough race following the funds scandal, as Hosoda belonged to the largest LDP faction formerly led by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The faction has been accused of failing to report hundreds of millions of yen from fundraising parties for years and creating slush funds.

The by-election in Tokyo's Koto Ward was called due to a separate scandal involving former LDP lawmaker Mito Kakizawa, who was found guilty of a campaign finance offense related to the ward's mayoral election in April last year.

A total of nine candidates, including those endorsed by several opposition parties and political groups, have thrown their hats into the ring in Koto.

Hirotada Ototake, a high-profile Japanese writer born without arms and legs, is hoping to claim the Koto seat, having secured the backing of a group linked to a regional party founded by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and the opposition Democratic Party for the People.

The LDP initially sought to support Ototake but abandoned the effort when the candidate rebuffed the party.

The Nagasaki poll is being contested by candidates fielded by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Japan Innovation Party, another opposition party.

The LDP struggled to find a candidate to run in the election in the prefecture in southwestern Japan after Yaichi Tanigawa, who faced a summary indictment over the political funds scandal, resigned as a lower house member in January.

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