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Voting under way in Japan's lower house by-elections

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe high-fives constituents. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Voters go the polls on Sunday in lower house by-elections in Okinawa and Osaka, as well as numerous races being held simultaneously to pick mayors and assembly members in cities, towns and villages nationwide.

    The Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hoping to build momentum in the run-up to the upper house election in July and mitigate the negative impact of recent resignations by two Cabinet members over controversial remarks.

    In the No. 3 district in Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, pro- and anti-base candidates are vying for a seat in the lower house left vacant by Denny Tamaki who now serves as Okinawa governor.

    Freelance journalist Tomohiro Yara, 56, who has received support from small opposition parties, is opposed to Okinawa Prefecture hosting the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, while the LDP's Aiko Shimajiri, 54, supports the transfer of the base from Ginowan to Nago, which makes up part of the constituency.

    Shimajiri used to be minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs.

    In Osaka, the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito are facing off against the Japan Innovation Party, which has enjoyed strong local support for its plan to streamline Osaka administrations by creating a metropolis akin to Tokyo.

    Fumitake Fujita, 38, of the innovation party, is competing with the LDP's Shimpei Kitakawa, 32, who is also supported by Komeito, and two other candidates in the Osaka No. 12 district. The by-election is being held following the death of former Deputy Environment Minister Tomokatsu Kitagawa.

    Across the country, voters will choose leaders and assembly members in cities, towns and villages, along with Tokyo's wards.

    Sunday's vote comes after Japan's Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada stepped down earlier this month over remarks he made deemed offensive to people affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which also triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

    Abe's effective sacking of the Olympics minister came after deputy land minister Ichiro Tsukada quit on April 5 for remarks that suggested he had acted in the interests of the prime minister's constituency over a road project.

    The vote also comes as the outlook for Japan's economy, which has enjoyed modest growth, is increasingly uncertain partly due to trade friction between the United States and China.

    A close aide to Abe hinted Thursday at the possibility of another delay in the consumption tax hike, scheduled for October from 8 percent to 10 percent, depending on a key quarterly business sentiment survey by the Bank of Japan to be released on July 1.

    Tax hikes are often unpopular among Japanese voters but Abe sought approval in a House of Representatives election in 2017 to use part of the revenue to enhance childcare support.

    In the first round of simultaneously held elections on April 7, the LDP won a gubernatorial race in Hokkaido and a majority of prefectural assembly seats but revealed party divisions in some regional areas.

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