National / Politics

How socialism and the left wing failed in Japan

by Masahiko Fukada

Staff Writer

Three decades ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Malta Summit signified the end of the Cold War and the defeat of left-wing forces, including the socialists and communists.

The communists lost power in the East, and the socialist parties in the West lost public support and relevance.

The exception was Japan, where the years immediately after the Cold War marked the zenith of its socialists before they, too, lost momentum.

Thirty years on, socialism — albeit of a slightly different breed — appears to be gaining traction in the West.

Though the U.K.’s Labour Party was roundly trounced at the polls in December, socialism is losing some of the stigma it once had. In the United States meanwhile, more than 40 percent of Americans feel some form of socialism would benefit the country, according to a Gallup poll in May.

Yet in Japan, the Social Democratic Party, which was at one time the nation’s largest opposition party, is on the brink of collapse. And even though the Constitutional Democratic Party touts a center-left platform, today’s main opposition force avoids using the term “socialism.”

How did socialism in Japan — once a proud force in the nation’s political and social landscape — go down, and stay down? Its failure offers a cautionary tale on how clinging to an ideology can put parties out of touch with their voters.

Red dusk

In 1989, people around the world were turning their backs on socialism in a series of revolutions known as the Autumn of Nations.

People from Eastern Bloc countries were fleeing or defecting to the West in droves, and masses of democracy demonstrators in China were killed by Chinese soldiers in the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre that June.

Japan Socialist Party leader Takako Doi exchanges greetings with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on Jan. 13, 1991, a few days before a U.N. deadline demanding Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. | JSP / VIA KYODO
Japan Socialist Party leader Takako Doi exchanges greetings with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on Jan. 13, 1991, a few days before a U.N. deadline demanding Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. | JSP / VIA KYODO

In contrast, the Japan Socialist Party, then the largest opposition force, triumphed in the July 1989 Upper House election. For the first time since 1947, the JSP nominated a candidate for prime minister, leader Takako Doi, the following month. The top job, however, ultimately went to the Liberal Democratic Party’s Toshiki Kaifu, who was chosen by the more powerful Lower House.

Back then, Tokyo’s political world was preoccupied with the nation’s first consumption tax and the Recruit Co. bribery scandal, which had embroiled two prime ministers.

A few months after the U.S. and the Soviet Union declared the end of the Cold War in Malta in December 1989, the JSP was in its heyday. The election vaulted its strength to 136 seats from 82 in the 512-seat Lower House.

Takeshi Sasaki, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Tokyo, was among those shocked by the gap in events between Japan and the rest of the world.

Takeshi Sasaki | KYODO
Takeshi Sasaki | KYODO

When Sasaki attended an academic conference in Norway in August 1989, the hot topic was refugees from Eastern Europe. But when he came back to Tokyo, all people were talking about was the Recruit scandal and the sales tax.

“While the world was watching the end of the Cold War, Japan was obsessed with issues of politics and money,” Sasaki said.

He sought to persuade politicians to start discussing what Japan needed to do in the new world order. But their interest was hard to capture — even among the socialists.

“Discussions on what actions the JSP should take (after the fall of the Berlin Wall) were nonexistent back then,” former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, then a veteran JSP lawmaker, recalled in a memoir. “Even though the (international) order changed, I didn’t think it would affect my election that much.”

Teruyuki Senba, then editor-in-chief of the JSP’s monthly magazine, Gekkan Shakaito (Monthly JSP), and a party official for 30 years, said the lawmakers had different ideas on what socialism was about.

“Socialism wasn’t the backbone of the JSP,” he said.

Foreign ideas

Socialism was just an idea borrowed from imported books, said Nobukatsu Fujioka, a former professor of education at the University of Tokyo.

In the Eastern bloc centered on Russia, authorities governed their states with Marxist-Leninist theory in both philosophy and politics. But Japan’s socialists had embraced socialism, including communism, merely as an ideal rather than an actual political system.

Nobukatsu Fujioka | KYODO
Nobukatsu Fujioka | KYODO

Fujioka, who was a member of the Japanese Communist Party between 1963 and 1991, is vice chair of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a right-wing group advocating revision of the nation’s schoolbooks on modern history.

Fujioka joined the JCP when he was young and attracted to the intellectual spirit of the Marxists in Japan. They worked as schoolteachers in small towns, including his hometown in eastern Hokkaido.

Japan has never been directly affected by foreign socialist waves, such as the Russian Revolution, Fujioka explained. That’s why socialism here was a mere pipe dream that didn’t derive from within. In the 1970s, when he read the accounts of Russian exiles revealing the Soviet Union’s repressive regime, it served as a wake-up call and prompted him to distance himself from the ideology.

And as Japan underwent its rapid economic growth spurt during the 1960s and ’70s, Japan’s socialists were enjoying a better life than their comrades around the world — which may explain why, deep down, they didn’t actually believe socialism was an alternative to capitalism.

Even Masashi Ishibashi, the JSP’s chairman at that time and who died earlier this month, admitted as much.

“Japan won’t be a socialist regime even if we take power in the country,” Ishibashi said in 1984 as reported by the now-defunct weekly Asahi Journal. He said socialism was for “internal use” in the party — a convenient idea to win the hearts and minds of left-wing hardliners.

That explains why it was impossible for the party to unite under the banner of socialism.

If socialism wasn’t the basis of its policy platform, however, its party elders found a rallying cry in the war-renouncing Constitution.

Ishibashi appealed to voters, arguing that Japan should opt to become an unarmed, neutral nation, using war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution as its rationale.

It may have looked good on paper, but in reality it was a starry-eyed notion espoused by politicians like Ishibashi who insisted that in the face of invasion, surrendering is better than putting up a fight.

Nonetheless, it resonated with voters at the time, many of whom still held strong anti-war sentiment borne from Japan’s surrender in World War II. It was this pacifism, the socialists argued, that had allowed Japan to rise from the rubble of defeat and become an economic power.

For them, the idea of making Japan an unarmed, neutral country offered an alternative to the conservative LDP, whose goal is to revise the supreme law.

Ishibashi’s strategy may have worked during the Cold War, but apparently not after.

While the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t have much effect on Japan’s socialists, the 1991 Gulf War dealt them a heavy blow.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the LDP government submitted a U.N. peace cooperation bill to the Diet so it could dispatch the Self-Defense Forces overseas for a peacekeeping mission. But the LDP eventually gave up on passing the bill in the face of strong opposition from the JSP and national anti-war sentiment.

Instead, JSP leader Doi met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on Jan. 13, 1991, to persuade him to pull out of Kuwait ahead of a U.N. deadline demanding Iraq’s withdrawal.

In the meeting, Hussein thanked her for pushing to scrap the peace cooperation bill.

U. S. President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev make a joint statement at a news conference in Marsaxlokk Bay, Malta, on Dec. 3, 1989. | AP
U. S. President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev make a joint statement at a news conference in Marsaxlokk Bay, Malta, on Dec. 3, 1989. | AP

The Gulf War broke out several days later.

“It was shocking,” University of Tokyo’s Fujioka recalled. “It was like being kicked out from the bubble of Article 9 and into the storm.”

Until the Iraqi invasion in August 1990, Fujioka believed Japan needed to contribute to the world not by sending military forces, but through economic aid.

In the end, that was exactly what Japan did. Instead of dispatching troops, Tokyo paid $13 billion to a multinational operation. But the response from the international community was criticism, with the move slammed as checkbook diplomacy and free-riding on global security.

After coalition forces drove out Hussein’s troops, Kuwait ran an advertisement in The Washington Post and other news outlets thanking several countries in a show of appreciation. Japan was not on the list.

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama attends a Self-Defense Forces ceremony in Asaka, Saitama Prefecture, in October 1994. | KYODO
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama attends a Self-Defense Forces ceremony in Asaka, Saitama Prefecture, in October 1994. | KYODO

The snub became a traumatizing inflection point for many Japanese, making them question whether its unilateral pacifism was self-righteous.

Fujioka was among them. Disillusioned, he left the Japanese Communist Party and swung to the right.

With socialism discredited and the party’s stance on the Gulf War roundly criticized, the JSP went on to suffer a crushing defeat in nationwide local elections, including the Tokyo gubernatorial election, in April 1991. Doi resigned as chairperson.

Satsuki Eda was leader of the Socialist Democratic Federation, an opposition party that was regarded as a potential coalition partner for the JSP. He published a paper titled “Disband the JSP,” arguing that socialists should propose policies for consumers as an alternative to the LDP’s business-friendly platform.

But Eda’s proposal was ignored, and the JSP stuck to its quixotic version of pacifism.

In June 1992, the JSP tried to block government legislation to dispatch the SDF to Cambodia for a U.N. peacekeeping mission. The bill passed, and the party was defeated in the Upper House election a month later.

While the socialists dithered on policy, Washington pressed Tokyo for free trade and deregulation to benefit Japanese consumers.

Women protest the consumption tax in Tokyo's Hibiya district on March 3, 1989. | KYODO
Women protest the consumption tax in Tokyo’s Hibiya district on March 3, 1989. | KYODO

That altered Japan’s social and economic foundation and influenced workers who had long supported the socialists. Unlike typical conservative parties, the LDP has carried out welfare policies such as “social security for all generations” and won the hearts and minds of voters on the left .

Sasaki, of the University of Tokyo, claims the fall of the Berlin Wall presented a golden opportunity for the JSP — which had enough seats in the Diet to be the ruling party — to shift their policies and offer realistic solutions to real problems affecting voters.

“The ball was in their court,” Sasaki said. “It was the most thrilling moment for the JSP.”

But none of the political parties was eager to form a coalition with a party that was obsessed with creating an unarmed, neutral Japan and regarded the SDF as unconstitutional.

“The JSP would have dissolved if our leader had accepted that the SDF was constitutional,” said Senba, of Gekkan Shakaito. “It would have been wise to be mum about the constitutionality of the SDF until the party took office.”

From there, it was all downhill for the JSP.

Amid a political realignment in the 1990s, the JSP, LDP and New Party Sakigake formed a coalition government in 1994 with JSP chief Murayama as prime minister.

It was only in 1994 that Murayama said in the Diet that the SDF was constitutional. But it was too late. By then, the JSP’s strength in the Lower House had been halved by its defeat in the 1993 general election.

Outside Japan, socialist parties in Europe gradually regained strength and credibility in the latter half of the 1990s, redefining themselves as social democratic groups and proposing market-oriented economic plans. They took office in the U.K., France and Germany in 1997 and 1998.

Lack of realism

Fed up with the JSP’s unrealistic way of thinking, Senba left in 1998. He doesn’t see a future in either opposition mergers or the leftist populism displayed by political groups such as Reiwa Shinsengumi, which was founded in April to challenge the establishment and status quo.

Despite its former dominance, the Social Democratic Party, renamed from the JSP, now has only four members in the Diet and is about to disappear amid talks about the opposition forces merging into one big party.

Taro Yamamoto, leader of political group Reiwa Shinsengumi, stumps in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on July 20. | KYODO
Taro Yamamoto, leader of political group Reiwa Shinsengumi, stumps in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on July 20. | KYODO

Senba doesn’t even think the JSP could champion the cause of consumers.

“We have had our heads in the clouds, and still have no clue about what consumers really want.”

Things are so bad, and the outlook so bleak, for socialists forces in Japan that Senba, ironically, thinks the only force for change could be the conservative LDP — if it self-destructs.

“The only way for change is to wait for someone strong enough within the LDP to run against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” he said, “causing the party to either split or decline in power.”