The unified series of gubernatorial, mayoral and prefectural and municipal assembly elections in April, held every four years, are deemed a key barometer of voter sentiment in national politics — this year in particular as they will be followed by the Upper House election in summer. But the elections also shed light on a critical situation in local politics — such as falling voter turnout and the growing number of local assembly seats that go uncontested in elections because there aren't enough candidates to warrant races — that could shake the foundation of local autonomy.

Many of Japan's regions are confronted with a host of challenges, including the unabated flight of people to Tokyo as the population rapidly grays and declines — which threatens the very survival of many depopulated municipalities — revitalization of regional economies left behind by the growth driven by Tokyo and other big metropolitan areas, and defense against severe natural disasters. Voters cannot afford to be uninterested in local elections, and political parties and their candidates need to contest the races in ways that rouse the voters' interest and prompt them to go to the polls.

The elections are held in two stages. People will vote April 7 on gubernatorial elections in 11 prefectures — the campaign for which officially kicked off on Thursday — and mayoral races in six major cites such as Sapporo and Osaka, as well as local assembly races in 41 prefectures and 17 big cities. On April 21, voters will cast their ballots in the mayoral races in other municipalities and municipal assembly elections.