By Eric Talmadge
The Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — Under a big red flag, the headquarters of the Communist Party of Japan are at the center of the most vibrant grassroots movement in the country. The party’s ranks are swelling. It has 24,000 branch offices, and more than a million people read its newspaper.
As Japan’s economy withers, communism is coming to life. Dormant in the boom years and marginalized even as Japan recently clawed its way out of recession, the party’s litany of capitalist evils is now resonating deeply with many Japanese — especially the young — who are feeling the pain of an economic downturn.
While the Communist Party — which is the fourth-largest party in parliament but has only 16 of the total 722 seats — is not likely to take over anytime soon. However, it is making itself felt.
On college campuses, in particular, Karl Marx is popular again. “I have never voted before, but I intend to vote Communist in the next elections,” said Suguru Yagi, a Tokyo college student.
Yagi, 22, said he had considered joining the party because he agrees with many of its policies and sees it as the defender of the working class. He is concerned about the shrinking work force and the difficulties he may find in getting a good job.
Leading Japan’s communist renaissance is Kazuo Shii. Capitalism, Shii concludes, is doomed. “It is inevitable,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “When the persimmon is ripe, it will fall from the tree.”
In Asia’s most dedicated bastion of capitalism, more people are beginning to agree. According to the party, about 1,000 new members are joining its ranks every month — a sharp contrast to the massive exodus that has plagued the ruling Liberal Democrats, who have dropped from about 5 million members in their heyday to about a million members remaining.
The Japan Communist Party was founded as an illegal movement in 1922 but was legalized after Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945.
Shii attributed the renewed interest in the party to voter disillusionment with future prospects in an increasingly difficult job market. There is increasing distrust of the centrist Liberal Democrats and their main rivals, the Democratic Party of Japan, who are also conservative and are, in fact, led by a former Liberal Democrat.
The communist revival has also been spurred on by the pop media. Marx’s “Das Kapital” is now available in cartoon form, and a surprise best-seller of the year is a version of “Kanikosen,” a 1929 novel about exploited workers on a boat.
In Japan, the Communist Party has swelled to about 415,000 members. The newspaper, Red Flag, has a readership of 1.6 million. It has also started a channel on YouTube featuring video of Shii addressing parliament and other tidbits for those who want to keep up with party goings-on.
Shii said his party is willing to work within Japan’s system; he said it does not advocate immediate or violent revolution.
“We want to fix social inequities within the framework of capitalism,” Shii said. “It will take time for people to make adjustments and be ready. We aren’t advocating a sudden change to communism.”
Political analysts are split on where the communists are headed.
Tomoaki Iwai, a Nihon University political science professor, said the party’s recent popularity could be a fad.
“I don’t see a bright future for the communist party, despite the current expansion,” he said. “They are not going to gain decision-making status in Japanese politics.”
But Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said the party serves as an important check-and-balance.
“Their ideological stance stands out in a political scene dominated by the conservatives,” he said. “And it’s good to have diversity. Despite their marginal presence in parliament, [their] views are often considered common sense among the public.”
And, while not expected to win big, the communists are looking at modest gains when the next parliamentary elections are held — sometime before October — because of the growing unpopularity of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is widely seen as being in disarray.
“The communists offer hope,” said Yagi, the college student. “I don’t know if I would want them to take over power, but I think they should be big enough to influence what the ruling party can do.”
He said he stopped short of actually joining up because the name of the party put him off.
“I like what the party is doing,” he said. “But ‘communism’ still carries with it a stigma, like ‘radical’ or ‘terrorist.’ I don’t want that kind of communism. I’m not a radical.” (end)