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Alarmed Japanese voters head to polls as threat of conflict with China looms

As eight fighter jets are scrambled over disputed islands, nationalist rhetoric grows louder

The threat of war has a way of concentrating minds and while few Japanese people believe conflict with China will actually come, they are heading to the polls this weekend with alarm bells ringing.

Japan scrambled eight F-15 fighter jets today after a Chinese government plane was reportedly spotted over territory disputed by both sides. The incursion, the latest by China over a small group of goat-infested islands they call the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japan), may push Japanese voters further into the arms of right-wing candidates who want the nation to face down its increasingly powerful neighbour.

Among the most outspoken candidates is Shintaro Ishihara, who quit as Governor of Tokyo last month, pledging to ditch Japan's "ugly" war-renouncing constitution and take a tougher stance toward Beijing. At 80, the conservative warhorse has ruled himself out as the next Prime Minister and his sabre-rattling rhetoric is, in any case, too rich for most voters. But Mr Ishihara's Restoration Party, which wants to boost defence spending and revise the constitution, may hold the balance of power – the latest polls show it trailing behind the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP) but ahead of the ruling Democrats (DPJ) in Sunday's general election.

Three years ago the left-leaning Democrats ended over half a century of LDP rule after promising something akin to a political revolution, tugging policy out of the hands of unelected bureaucrats, decoupling Japan from its six-decade US military embrace and shifting spending toward welfare. The Prime Minister at the time, Yukio Hatoyama, famously talked about feelings of "fraternity" toward China and the possibility of better relations.

Things look very different today. The DPJ has been reduced to a conservative rump. Most of its left has bolted, alienated by the party's drift from its 2009 manifesto.

The current Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has made little progress taming the bureaucracy, now strongly supports the US alliance and wants to cut welfare spending. He lost much of his support by backing the return of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster and working with the LDP to introduce a controversial sales tax. With the economy now sliding into recession, some even predict a post-election DPJ/LDP merger.

A record 12 parties have announced battle stations since Mr Noda called the election last month. That leaves a lot to fight for in an election with possibly ominous implications for Japan's increasingly tense relationship with China. Several of the newer parties disagree on policy but merged anyway, united in their determination to pull Japan out of its economic and spiritual torpor, a strategy reflected in their vanguardist monikers: Sunrise, Restoration, Stand-Up, Renaissance. They also share a penchant for nationalist rhetoric.

Mr Ishihara has quickly showed his flair for commanding headlines with a string of inflammatory bon mots. He has repeatedly said that Japan should consider building nuclear weapons to combat the growing military threat from China. This week he said that Japan's pacifism emboldened North Korea to kidnap Japanese citizens. "North Koreans see Japan's constitution and think: 'They will never wage war'," he said. His decision earlier this year as Tokyo Governor to buy the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands triggered a damaging spat with Beijing that has sent relations into the deep freeze.

Japanese voters are desperate for solutions to these problems and generally show less enthusiasm for aggressive nationalism. But the question of how much power the nationalist right will wield may be key. One likely outcome is merger or coalition with the LDP under its new leader Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe also wants to dump the constitution. A well-known historical revisionist, he has said he will visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to honour Japan's wartime leaders.

Mr Abe, who was also Prime Minister five years ago, along with Mr Ishihara and their colleagues have tellingly dropped all references to Japan's war history as the election looms.

Key policy issues: What will decide the election?

Stagnating economy

All parties agree that the economy needs a jump-start, now that Japan has slid back into recession for the fifth time in 15 years. They are at odds, however, over how to achieve enduring growth.

China tensions

Relations with China have been severely damaged by a territorial dispute over a group of islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

Nuclear power

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has lost much of his support by backing the return of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, despite mass protests.