[TOKYO] Japan on Sunday held nationwide local elections, partially seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to boost the country's economy with upper house elections due next year.
Voting began at 7:00 am (2200 GMT on Saturday) to elect 10 governors and five mayors as well as local assembly members, officials said.
Broadcasters' exit polls are expected to give a reasonable indication of the final outcome shortly after the ballot boxes are sealed at 8:00 pm.
This is the first set of two rounds of local elections, with the second race scheduled to be held on April 26.
Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regards the polls as a litmus test to evaluate his drive to resuscitate Japan's fortunes, dubbed "Abenomics".
The efforts include massive government spending, monetary easing and an overhaul of the highly regulated economy.
The scheme kicked off a sharp decline in the yen and a stock market rally, but efforts to drag the country out of years of deflation have been met with mixed success.
"The impact of Abenomics has finally emerged," LDP secretary-general Sadakazu Tanigaki told voters in the northern city of Sapporo, where the LDP faces a tight mayoral contest.
"The theme of these local elections is to capitalise on the impact across the nation," said Mr Tanigaki, the ruling party's number two after Mr Abe.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) also sees the local polls as a precursor to next year's upper house elections.
"It is very important for us to win seats... when we consider the next national election," DPJ president Katsuya Okada told reporters.
The election campaign has also focused on the country's energy sources and the future of nuclear power, particularly in gubernatorial races in Fukui and Shimane prefectures in central and western Japan respectively, both of which host nuclear power plants.
The once nuclear-dependent country is now sceptical of the technology, with voters' badly scarred by the disaster at Fukushima, where reactors went into meltdown after their cooling systems were swamped by a tsunami in 2011.
Japan's entire stable of nuclear power stations were gradually switched off following the disaster, while tens of thousands of people were evacuated because of rising levels of radiation, with many still unable to return to their homes.
The country's nuclear watchdog has given the green light to restarting reactors as pro-nuclear Mr Abe and much of the industry are keen to return to atomic generation, largely because a plunging yen has sent the cost of dollar-denominated fossil fuels soaring.