Years ago a Japanese acquaintance applied for a green card when her American husband decided to move back to the United States. Someone told her she should not say she once voted for the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) during her interview, otherwise U.S. Immigration would reject it. As far as I know, applicants’ voting decisions have never been an issue for the State Department — political party affiliation, maybe — but in any case, the anecdote points out America’s reputation for paranoia regarding socialist thought.

Before and during World War II, communists in Japan were persecuted and jailed, but afterward they enjoyed a brief dispensation and flourished in the new democracy. As Japan aligned more strongly with the U.S. during the Cold War, avowed communists and fellow travelers fell out of favor, and more radical adherents found themselves in the sights of the police, but until the late 1970s the Japanese Communist Party was a force in national politics, helped to a certain extent by the sentimental attachment boomers formed with Soviet culture during their college years. Many still know all the words to popular Russian folk songs.

The JCP has always been known for its idealism. In the early ’60s its aims were to abolish the emperor system and dismantle the Self-Defense Forces. According to political writer Hideyo Fudesaka in the April 29 Tokyo Shimbun, the JCP “only formulates policies that have no chance of being realized,” giving as an example its unconditional opposition to the consumption tax. Others interviewed in the same article contend this is not necessarily a bad thing, since right now the main opposition is the Democratic Party of Japan, which accepts most of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policies. The JCP, by opposing everything the LDP proposes, provides much-needed rebuttals to those proposals.

In 2004 the JCP revised its platform. It no longer presents its primary goal as creating a socialist society, and has become more flexible with regards to both the Emperor and the SDF. If it isn’t always more realistic with regards to what it can accomplish, it has definitely held true to its idealism, and in local assemblies the JCP is often the only opposition party that questions those in power. It still does not accept any form of public funding, operating exclusively on revenue produced by its newspaper, Akahata.

As the DPJ’s relevance has continued to deteriorate since its brief, disastrous tenure as the ruling party, and the LDP gains more power, the JCP suddenly appeals to more than just its core constituency. The party has always been able to count on its members, which number about 300,000, as well as the 1.24 million people who subscribe to Akahata, but more voters seem to be turning to the JCP as a liberal alternative.

U.S.-based Japanese blogger New York Kingyo posted an analysis of the JCP’s strong showing in last year’s general election. In the previous Lower House election in 2012, the JCP collected 3.69 million votes and the other liberal-identified party, Ichiro Ozawa’s Mirai no To, garnered 3.24 million. In December’s Lower House poll, the JCP scored 6.06 million to Ozawa’s new Seikatsu no To’s 1.03 million. Kingyo claims these figures prove that many liberal voters — what he calls the “heretics” of the Japanese electorate — switched from Ozawa to the JCP. This figure becomes more impressive when you consider that overall turnout decreased between 2012 and 2014, indicating that a larger portion of those who went to the polls voted liberal.

The “sad reality,” he says, is that this shift had no effect on the “LDP stampede,” but what Kingyo overlooks is how the media, while reporting the improved JCP showings in both the general election and last month’s local elections, doesn’t take the JCP seriously. Coverage of politics is limited to the ruling coalition and the main opposition party, the only conflict that interests them.

But the JCP’s improved fortunes — it now has enough Diet seats to submit bills of its own — are also a sign of its own creeping relevance. Last December the business magazine Toyo Keizai picked up on this development with its close coverage of two female JCP candidates, Saori Ikeuchi and Yoshiko Kira, who won constituent seats in Tokyo districts by addressing issues that directly affect young people, in particular the unstable jobs situation, something the DPJ has not addressed clearly, mainly because its loyalties are to Rengo, the confederation of trade unions, which only cares about full-time regular employees.

Last November, the JCP held a rally in Tokyo where it aligned itself with the Occupy movement and attracted many young people. The Tokyo Shimbun article includes remarks from activists who say they have no use for the JCP’s “revolutionary dogmatism” and have convinced its leaders to confront the ruling party on specific issues, such as hate speech and energy policy. During campaign stops for last month’s local elections, JCP chairman Kazuo Shii stressed that his was a “citizens party,” a change from its stance as a force for socialist change. The party now works with issue-based groups, such as the All Okinawa movement, which was successful. The JCP won big in Okinawa last December.

The party has yet to convince the media to treat it with respect. Even Tokyo Shimbun, which admires its recent achievements, dismisses the JCP’s idealism as an anachronism. And there’s that word, “communist,” which leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Nevertheless, at one point in the article, the writer relates how all political reporters start out covering local assemblies, “where the JCP takes good care of the press” by giving them materials with which to understand the issues being debated, implying that other parties fail to provide such information. In fact, he now feels sorry that he has “never returned the favor,” which he could easily do by approaching the JCP as a genuine force for change.

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