Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in a landslide election victory after three years in opposition, exit polls showed, signalling a rightward shift in the government that could further heighten tensions with rival China.
The victory means that the hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will get a second chance to lead the nation after a one-year stint in 2006-2007. He would be Japan's seventh prime minister in six-and-a-half years.
Public broadcaster NHK's exit polls projected that the LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the post- World War Two era until it was dumped in 2009, won between 275 and 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament. Official results were not expected until Monday morning. Before the election, it had 118 seats.
The results were a sharp rebuke for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan, reflecting widespread unhappiness for its failure to keep campaign promises and get the stagnant economy going during its three years in power.
With Japan stuck in a two-decade slump and receding behind China as the region's most important economic player, voters appeared ready to turn back to the LDP.
A serious-looking Abe characterised the win as more of a protest vote against the DPJ than a strong endorsement of his party.
"I think the results do not mean we have regained the public's trust 100%. Rather, they reflect 'no votes' to the DPJ's politics that stalled everything the past three years," he told NHK. "Now we are facing the test of how we can live up to the public's expectations, and we have to answer that question."
The ruling Democrats, which won in a landslide three years ago amid high hopes for change, captured less than 100 seats, exit polls indicated, down sharply from its pre-election strength of 230.
Calling the results "severe," Noda told a late-night news conference he was stepping down to take responsibility for the defeat.
"I apologise deeply for our failure to achieve results," he said. "It was the voters' judgment to our failure to live up to their expectations during our three years and three months of leadership."