Both of Japan's main parties are hoping to win Sunday's general election in order to push through reforms aimed at restoring the country's sluggish economy.
It is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's first lower house election since he swept to power in April 2001 and he is hoping for a decisive victory for his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to strengthen his mandate to reform.
But for the first time in Japanese politics, there appears a credible opposition who could challenge the LDP, which has governed almost without interruption for the last 50 years.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Naoto Kan and strengthened by a merger with an opposition party led by former LDP heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, is presenting itself as a serious rival.
JAPAN'S ELECTION RACE
Koizumi's LDP-led coalition [285 seats in old parliament]
Naoto Kan's DPJ opposition 
LDP has ruled almost constantly since 1955
Polls open at 0700 local time on Sunday (2200 GMT Saturday) and close at 2000 local time on Sunday (1100 GMT Sunday). Official results will be known after 0330 local time on Monday (1830 GMT).
All 480 Lower House seats are up for grabs. Three hundred of these are from single member districts, where the candidate with the most seats wins.
The remaining 180 are from proportional representative districts where seats are allotted based on the total number of votes cast for candidate or party.
Currently, the LDP, with its two coalition partners, holds 285 seats and the DPJ 137.
Mr Koizumi has said he will step down if his ruling coalition does not win a simple majority - at least 241 seats.
Analysts expect him to achieve this, but the LDP's gains are nevertheless threatened by two factors - voter turnout and swing voters.
Around half of Japan's electorate have told surveys they are unsure who to vote for, and these traditionally end up favouring the opposition. In addition, a high voter turnout is expected to benefit the DPJ.
The key issues are the economy, crime, and the country's pacifist constitution.
Both the LDP and the DPJ are campaigning on a platform of economic reform. They have both pledged to slash public spending, which has been used in the past to try and drive economic growth, but which has ballooned the country's enormous debt.
The LDP has pledged to privatise many of the nation's public administrations, while the DPJ has said it will go as far as abolishing some.
Both parties have also pledged to try and stem the country's rising crime rate, some of which has been blamed on foreigners. The LDP has promised a substantial increase in police in the next three years, and to tighten controls on immigration.
The DPJ wants to increase the number of police by 30,000 in the next four years and strengthen punishments for serious offences.
The LDP has pledged to draft a revision for the country's constitution, which renounces war and precludes combat troops for Japan, by 2005. The DPJ says it will produce revision guidelines by the end of 2004.