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Campaigning for the Sept. 11 House of Representatives election officially kicked off Tuesday with 1,132 candidates throwing their hats in the ring for 480 seats.

The race to fill 300 single-seat districts and 180 proportional representation seats is being widely portrayed as a plebiscite on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s leadership and his plan to privatize the postal service.

Koizumi promised a crowd outside JR Kichijoji Station in western Tokyo that his Liberal Democratic Party would push ahead with his reform agenda and transform the face of politics.

Appearing in Kita Ward, Tokyo, Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada asked for voter support to create a DPJ-led admin-istration that would focus on reforming the nation’s pension system and child-care support.

“Japan will collapse if we don’t do something,” Okada said. “A change of government is the only way to carry out reform.”

Koizumi devoted most of his 17-minute speech to postal privatization.

“Are workers in the private sector incapable of offering services at post offices? Why should (postal workers) only be national public servants? I want to ask the people that,” Koizumi told the crowd. Opponents “are trying to protect the vested interests of government workers.”

He promised that under his plan, the 380,000 civil servants in the postal system, including more than 260,000 full-time workers, would join the private sector.

The postal services are financially independent of the government’s budget, with all income raised from mail, postal savings and insurance services. No taxpayer money is used to pay the salaries of postal workers, although they are technically public servants.

Still, Koizumi stressed that postal privatization would contribute to creating a smaller government.

“There is no other reform plan that would reduce such a large number of public servants. The Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and some in the LDP are trying to kill this” effort, Koizumi said.

He did not say how the 330 trillion yen held by the postal savings and insurance systems would be managed by privatized entities.

Koizumi dissolved the Lower House on Aug. 8 and called the snap election after the House of Councilors rejected his package of bills to split up and privatize the postal delivery, savings and insurance services and create the world’s largest private bank.

Since then, he has targeted LDP Lower House members who opposed the reform, especially 37 who voted against the package in July. He has recruited high-profile candidates — including celebrities and an Internet entrepreneur — to run against them. His foes call the would-be spoilers “assassins.”

The DPJ’s Okada criticized the government-sponsored postal reform bills, saying they will not protect depositor savings.

Although Koizumi is effectively taking up postal reform as the sole issue in his campaign, Okada said there are more pressing matters that need to be resolved, including the pension system.

“If we leave the pension system as is, many people will be pensionless in the near future,” Okada said. “The prime minister did not provide a concrete answer” in Monday’s debate among the six major party leaders regarding the issue, he added.

At JR Akabane Station in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki urged voters to back the ruling coalition — his party and the LDP — to keep the reform drive going.

“This election is being held to ask whether (you want) to push reforms forward or backward,” Kanzaki said in the hotly contested Tokyo No. 12 district, which had been boasted as a symbol of ruling bloc cooperation. The LDP plans to support New Komeito Deputy Secretary General Akihiro Ota is their joint candidate, but former posts minister Eita Yashiro, an LDP postal reform rebel, now plans to run against him as an independent.

Japanese Communist Party chief Kazuo Shii, speaking in Ikebukuro, blasted Koizumi’s policies for favoring the business community and placing a heavy tax burden on individuals.

In Okinawa, Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima appealed to maintain the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Heads of the two newest parties — Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) and New Party Nippon — founded mainly by LDP postal reform foes after the dissolution of the Lower House, also appeared before voters.

Tamisuke Watanuki, leader of Kokumin Shinto, which includes postal reform rebel and ex-LDP heavyweight Shizuka Kamei, blasted Koizumi, telling a crowd in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, “We were ousted just because of one set of bills.”

Yasuo Tanaka, chief of New Party Nippon, told voters in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, “We are determined to change national politics from regional bases.”

Postal delay hinted

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi suggested Tuesday that the start of the postal privatization process may be delayed from the initially planned April 2007 if the government submits revised postal reform bills to the Diet.

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