The Japanese Communist Party is riding high.
With the public increasingly dismayed by the thin results of Abenomics and wary of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aggressive stance on defense, the party has tapped into anti-Abe sentiment over the past few years. It more than doubled its seats in the 2014 Lower House election.
In the run-up to the Upper House election this summer, the JCP is playing a pivotal role in an electoral tie-up with opposition parties that agree on one thing: Abe must go.
Overshadowing this is the JCP’s violent past and history of radical ideologies that poison potential alliances.
The Japan Times looks at the JCP, the second-largest opposition party in the Diet, and the political climate surrounding it.
How did the party come into being?
The JCP was founded as an underground organization in 1922, serving initially as the Japan branch of the Soviet-controlled Comintern.
It advocated revolution to overthrow Imperial Japan’s monarchy and create a socialist state. After surviving a fierce wartime crackdown by the government, the party started afresh as a legal organization but was unstinting in calling for revolution.
In 1951, it adopted a controversial platform stating that peaceful measures cannot bring about a democratic revolution. Therefore, in what it dubbed a military policy, it called for Japan to arm itself.
It was based on such policies that the JCP got involved in a series of violent, at times deadly, assaults and protests targeting the police in the 1950s. Today, the JCP denies it was systematically involved in these events and blames them on defectors from the party.
What is its ideology?
The JCP is known for strict pacifism and hatred of U.S-influenced capitalism. It has also long called for Japan to undergo a democratic — and eventually socialist — revolution.
Billing itself as a crusader for the working class, the JCP espouses improved social security and curtailed military spending, as well as the curbing of corporate profiteering and pushing for “peaceful diplomacy” in Asia.
Although some of its policies are unremarkable in contemporary politics, the JCP also pursues various radical goals, earning a deep-set public stigma — a phenomenon dubbed the “JCP allergy.”
For example, its calls Japan a “virtual client state” of the U.S. and therefore seeks to abolish the U.S. security treaty and disband the Self-Defense Forces, which it accuses of “being forced to play a role in America’s world strategy.”
How strong is the JCP in the Diet?
The JCP saw a resurgence in popularity in 2014 when it won 21 seats in the Lower House election that year, up from a pre-election strength of eight.
Critics attributed it to voters who oppose Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party but who were disillusioned after the Democratic Party of Japan’s tumultuous stint in power from 2009 to 2012.
Today, the JCP has a combined 32 seats in the lower and upper chambers and boasts 305,000 party members across the nation, according to its website. It also publishes Akahata, a leftist daily newspaper, which the party claims has about 1.24 million readers.
Is the party changing?
Yes. A longtime maverick due to its extremist ideology, the JCP seems more willing than ever to soften its stance and fall into line with other opposition parties and the expectations of the public.
For example, in January, JCP Chairman Kazuo Shii and other party executives attended the opening ceremony of the Diet for the first time in nearly 70 years. The party had long boycotted the ceremony, arguing that the Emperor’s participation in the event represents a remnant of the prewar Constitution’s principle that “sovereign power resides with the Emperor.”
In another drastic shift in policy, the JCP announced in February it will withdraw a “considerable” number of its own candidates from single-seat districts in the Upper House election this summer. Instead, it said it will support united candidates that share the support of other opposition parties, provided they oppose the new, LDP-pushed, security legislation it considers to be unconstitutional.
Masaya Kobayashi, a political science professor at the graduate school of Chiba University, said the withdrawal would prevent JCP candidates from being pitted against those from other opposition parties in single-seat constituencies and ultimately increase the chance of lawmakers who oppose the legislation being elected.
But more fundamentally, behind these policy changes is a bid by the JCP to secure an image makeover, dispelling public prejudice and further capitalizing on its newfound popularity, Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University, said.
Jumping on the anti-Abe bandwagon last year by protesting the LDP’s heavy-handed enactment of the security bills, the JCP and citizens’ groups think “the tide is very much in their favor,” Narita said.
Concerned that adhering to its traditional hard-line policies may turn off its fledgling supporters, the party “decided to show its flexible side” by cooperating with other opposition parties and showing up for the Diet opening ceremony, the professor said.
How does the ruling bloc view the JCP’s rise?
Political observers say the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition feels threatened.
As one example, the Abe Cabinet approved a statement in March declaring that the JCP still upholds its goal of “violent revolution” and thus remains subject to the scrutiny of the anti-subversive-activities law.
The statement was issued in response to a question by lawmaker Takako Suzuki, who only a few weeks before had left the DPJ because she found it intolerable that her party was planning an electoral tie-up with the JCP despite their fundamental ideological differences. Suzuki is the daughter of former veteran LDP lawmaker Muneo Suzuki.
The timing spurred speculation that the statement may have been part of a negative campaign by the government and Suzuki, who is rumored to be willing to join the LDP, to dredge up past JCP wrongdoing and scare away voters ahead of the summer election.
“At the very least, it’s clear that the way the government answered Suzuki’s question reflected its fear of the opposition tie-up and underscored its wish to sway public opinion against the JCP,” Kobayashi of Chiba University said.
Will the JCP’s tie-up with other parties bear fruit?
Yes, if the tie-up is limited to electoral cooperation, but not if it wants to go beyond that to create a coalition government with other opposition parties, namely the Democratic Party.
Last September, JCP Chairman Shii unveiled an ambitious plan to establish what he called the National Coalition Government to Repel the War (Security) Legislation — essentially a conglomerate of political forces opposed to the reforms. His calls went unanswered.
Although in desperate need of an estimated 20,000 pro-JCP votes per constituency, DP President Katsuya Okada, for one, has made it clear he wants nothing more to do with the Communist Party other than an electoral tie-up.
Okada has rejected the idea of forming a joint government with the JCP due to differences in basic policies. Even electoral cooperation raised DP hackles among members worried that a sharp shift to the left would antagonize their conservative supporters.
But a recent by-election in Hokkaido suggested there may be no need for such worry, analysts say. What was initially considered a shoe-in for the LDP-Komeito coalition turned into a neck-and-neck race as the campaign progressed, with many Hokkaido voters showing support for single mother Maki Ikeda, who was backed by the DP, JCP and other opposition parties.
In the end, though, LDP-endorsed businessman Yoshiaki Wada defeated Ikeda by a narrower-than-expected margin of 12,300 votes.
An exit poll conducted by the Hokkaido Shimbun, however, showed more than 90 percent of DP supporters voted for Ikeda.
This, both Kobayashi and Narita said, suggests voters do not have a problem with the DP-JCP tie-up, which culminated on the last day of the campaign with Seiji Maehara — former leader of the DP’s predecessor, the DPJ, and known for his strong anti-communist views — sharing a podium with JCP veteran Akira Koike.
As DP Diet affairs chief Jun Azumi put it after the election: “I believe the result discredited the idea that the opposition tie-up would turn away conservative votes.”