(Tokyo) – By Douglas Miller*
Communism as an ideology would appear to be fading out of our world. Most of the Cold War revolutionaries have died off, and China, Vietnam, and even Burma are becoming market economies. The communists are still going strong, however, here in Japan. Although the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) has dwindled in political stature since its heyday in the 1980s, the latest numbers show that there still are 320,000 JCP party members, as well as 1,300,000 subscribers to the party-run （しんぶん赤旗）Akahata newspaper. When you tally the Sunday and daily editions, the number is close to 1.5 million subscribers.
Think about it: over three hundred thousand registered party members and over a million subscribers to their newspaper. These numbers are staggering if one takes into account that these numbers are those of communist sympathizers. Well, that may not be exactly true. The name of the party is indeed the Japanese Communist Party. But the policies, far from being communist, are center-right social democrat. The American Japanologist and one-time ambassador to Japan E. O. Reischauer stated in his book Japan in Reischauer’s Eyes (ライシャワーの見た日本) (1968) that the JCP was not to be equated with the Soviets or the Chinese.
The JCP is not moving towards any revolution of the kind that we would perceive to be a necessary component of any communist movement. Rather, its goal is to become the majority party in Japan’s national parliament. If the JCP were to call for violent revolution and for the abolishment of multiparty systems and of capitalism itself, few of its hundreds of thousands of members would be supportive.
What the JCP stands for are noble causes that resonate with the Japanese people: (i) the abrogation of the US-Japan Security Treaty, (ii) economic sovereignty, (iii) correct historical understanding and subsequent necessary apologies to victims of Japanese aggression in World War II (iv) an end to nuclear power. The US-Japan Security Treaty imposes an especially heavy burden on Okinawa, where the majority of the US military bases are located. The JCP has always been a strong supporter of Okinawan voices, together protesting and working toward getting rid of the bases altogether.
The JCP has also been sensitive to the plight of small enterprises that are getting run out of business by multinational corporations that thrive on globalization. The protection of economic sovereignty is not necessarily a complete denial of globalization but, rather, a plea for “democratic rules that protect the lives and basic rights of the people.” The JCP accepts capitalism as a workable system and is not against it in principle.
A problem with history
Questions of historical correctness have proved more difficult for the JCP to finesse. Japan has adopted a highly revisionist interpretation of what occurred during the years leading up to World War II and during the war. There are two main issues of contention regarding historical correctness: “comfort women” and territorial disputes. The Japanese military was partially involved with the rounding up of large numbers of females in occupied territories to serve its troops as so-called “comfort women”, a euphemism for prostitutes. Many of these women were essentially sex slaves, forced to work and treated inhumanely, without freedom to choose their customers or quit their jobs. Internationally accepted accounts of the war years treat that practice as historical fact. But conservative Japanese politicians, often from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have denied that forced prostitution occurred and have insisted that any women who served the troops with sexual favors did so of their own volition. These comments routinely cause understandable uproar in China, the Koreas, and other states that were victimized by the Japanese.
The JCP acknowledges what the Japanese forces did during the war and has been working to encourage government accountability: acknowledge the existence of the comfort women, make a formal apology, and pay reparations to those who are still alive. Recently a South Korean diplomat met with JCP chairman Kazuo Shii to discuss the comfort women issue and other issues that the JCP has addressed. The diplomat expressed respect for the JCP’s stance on historical correctness and voiced high expectations for their policies. The JCP exhibits a mindboggling inconsistency, however, in regard to the very commitment to historical accountability lauded by the Korean diplomat. Witness its incomprehensible stance in regard to territorial disputes.
Japan currently has one official territorial dispute: a disagreement with Russia about four islands near Hokkaido—known to the Japanese as the Northern Territories and to the Russians as the Southern Kuril Islands—seized by Russia in the waning days of World War II. It also has two unofficial territorial disputes of note. One pertains to the Liancourt Rocks (claimed by Japan as Takeshima and by South Korea as Dokdo), a group of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan (the “East Sea” to Koreans). The other dispute pertains to a group of islets in the East China Sea claimed by Japan as Senkaku and by China as Daioyutai.
The JCP—the self-styled voice of historical accountability, the party lauded by the South Korean diplomat for its historical correctness—has parroted the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and other factions in asserting that all three of the disputed territories belong “indisputably” to Japan. Official party literature presents dubious historical data in support of the claim that these islands have long been under Japanese control and that the occupation of any of the islands by non-Japanese, as in the case of Takeshima/Dokdo and the Northern Territories/Southern Kurils are unjust. The sight of the JCP voicing the questionable history concocted by the conservative establishment is indisputably bizarre.
A knack for local politics
Incoherence in the national political arena does not seem to be undermining the JCP’s standing in prefectural and municipal governments. At the national Diet, the JCP lost yet another seat in the lower house last year, and its presence there has dwindled to a measly eight seats, a 45-year low. The party remains strong, however, in local politics.
Typical of the JCP’s loyal members is one who described his reasons for joining the party as follows, “The JCP was the only party that never compromised its principles, that never succumbed to political expediency.” The JCP is the last resort, adds the party member for a lot of people who can’t get help elsewhere for problems with things like workplace disputes and unmanageable debt. “When the police can’t help and the banks can’t help, you go to the Japanese Communist Party.”
The JCP has won government recognition of workplace injuries and fatalities, and its legal assistance has helped secure compensation for workers and their families in several instances of such accidents. Alone among Japan’s political parties, the JCP openly goes head to head with multinational corporations, such as Toyota, Sony and Mazda, to protect the rights of workers and their families. This principled support of ordinary people is a reason that the JCP has several long-serving public officials in local government.
One long-standing public official from the JCP was Kenzo Yamada, the mayor of Nanko town, Hyogo Prefecture, (1980 to 2005.) Yamada was reelected six times and served until Nanko town and three other towns merged to become the present municipality of Sayo town. His policies for promoting social welfare in the town generated tangible benefits. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, for example, recognized the town for its large percentage of over-80 residents who still had at least 20 of their original teeth.
Another long-standing public official from the JCP was Yutaka Yano, the mayor of Komae City in Tokyo, (1996 to 2012). Prior to his election as mayor, he had been a city councilman for 21 years. He replaced Sanyu Ishii, whose tenure had been riddled with accusations of corruption and of chronic gambling trips to South Korea. Ishii unexpectedly resigned on June 12, 1996, and Yano won the subsequent special election.
Yamada and Yano exemplify the JCP’s capacity for winning fair democratic elections. Support for the JCP’s national agenda may be wavering, but the party remains highly relevant in local constituencies all across Japan.
*The Japan Subculture Research Center does not support any one political party or political faction in Japan. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.