Hundreds of candidates are fanning out across Japan on the first official day of campaigning for a national election that could give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (shin-zoh ah-bay) a mandate for four more years.

Abe launched his party's campaign on Tuesday in Soma, a town close to the tsunami-struck Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. He pledged to make progress in recovering from the March 2011 tsunami and in restoring the economy.

Banri Kaieda (bahn-ree keye-eh-dah), the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, criticized Abe's economic policies. He asked if people's lives were better two years after Abe took office in December 2012.

Abe dissolved the lower house of parliament on Nov. 20, forcing a snap poll on Dec. 14.