Under a big red flag, the Japanese Communist Party’s headquarters stand as the center of a vibrant grassroots movement.
The party’s ranks are swelling, it has 24,000 branch offices and more than 1 million people read its newspaper. Only one party — the one that runs the country — beats it at fundraising.
As the economy withers, communist notions are seeing something of a revival.
Dormant in the boom years and marginalized as the nation clawed its way out of recession, the JCP’s litany of capitalist evils is now resonating deeply with many Japanese — especially the young — who are feeling the pain of an economic downturn that some say has reached depression dimensions.
Although the JCP — the fourth-largest party in the Diet, but with only 16 of the 722 total seats — is not likely to take power, it is making itself felt.
On college campuses, in particular, Karl Marx has newfound popularity.
“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. As a student about to graduate, he is concerned about the shrinking workforce and the difficulties he faces in finding a good job.
Leading the JCP renaissance is Kazuo Shii, the round-faced party chief, who has become one of Japan’s most recognizable politicians and something of a media star, grilling the country’s conservative leaders from his Diet perch and unfailingly appearing before the cameras with what boils down to: “I told you so.”
Financial meltdowns worldwide, banks and manufacturers going belly up, or begging for bailouts, unemployment and unrest on the rise all indicate capitalism is doomed, Shii concludes.
“It is inevitable,” he said in a recent interview. “When the persimmon is ripe, it will fall from the tree.”
Shii, and the party, believe that time is fast approaching. And, 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 Democratic Party, whose membership has dropped from about 5 million in its heyday to about 1 million now.
The JCP was founded as an illegal movement in 1922, but legalized after Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945. It then struggled through polarizing splits with the Soviets and Communist Chinese in an effort to maintain its independence. It also has distanced itself from the radical left, which gained popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, but has since died down.
Shii attributed the renewed interest in the party to voter disillusionment with future prospects in an increasingly difficult job market.
People who have lost their jobs or their pensions are turning to the party. There is increasing distrust of the centrist LDP and its main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan, which is also conservative and in fact led by a former LDP kingpin.
The JCP revival has also been spurred on by the pop media.
Marx’s “Das Kapital” is now available in “manga” cartoon form, and a surprise best-seller of the year has been a revival version of “Kanikosen,” a 1929 novel about exploited workers on a crab boat. That novel, too, is out in manga form and is being made into a movie.
The JCP has swelled to about 415,000 members at latest count and its newspaper, Aka Hata (Red Flag), boasts 1.6 million readers. It has also started a channel on YouTube featuring video of Shii addressing the Diet and other tidbits for those who want to keep up with party goings-on.
Shii said his party is willing to work within the 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 counterbalance.
“They are a perennial opposition party, but that is a significant role,” he said. “Their ideological stance stands out in a political scene dominated by the conservatives, and it’s good to have diversity. Despite their marginal presence in the Diet, the Communists’ views are often considered common sense among the public.”
Outside the Diet is where the JCP has been making its biggest strides.
Though weak at the national level, the Communists boast more elected officials than any other party because of their strong presence in municipal and prefectural assemblies, where they have more than 3,000 seats.
JCP ranks are free to devote as much, or little, of their time as they choose — from simply voting Communist when elections come around to helping run social activities and youth programs.
Because of the devotion of its members, the party’s campaign machine is formidable.
And, while not expected to win big, the Communists are looking at modest gains when the next general election is held — sometime before October — because of the unpopularity of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his ruling LDP, which is widely seen as being in disarray and unable to lead Japan out of its deepening recession.
The ruling party is also dogged by scandals. But Shii complained that the focus of the media on the potential emergence of a two-party system — the LDP and DPJ — has created an even darker shadow from which his party must emerge.
Even so, with younger voters, the Communists are doing well.
“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.”