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Inside a Boutique Political Party

4 minute read
Bryan Walsh/Tokyo

To her classmates, the party is something to which you bring a karaoke machine. But to Michiko Suzuki, a 19-year-old Wako University student in Tokyo, the party is the revolutionary vanguard of class struggle. Suzuki, you see, is a teenage Japanese communist. Bolshevism runs in her family. The daughter and granddaughter of party members, she joined the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) as soon as she turned 18. “The purpose of the JCP is to change Japan,” says Suzuki. “If the party becomes bigger, then Japan will be changed into a place where my dreams are realized.”

The idea of communists soldiering on in the world’s second-largest economy more than 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union may invite comparisons to Japanese soldiers stranded on remote Pacific islands who thought that World War II had never ended. But the JCP is far from extinct. It claims some 400,000 members, and garnered 7.3% of the vote—from 4.92 million voters—in the most recent legislative elections in 2005. “The JCP is probably the most successful non-ruling communist party in Asia, if not the world,” says Lam Peng Er, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.

That success has it roots in the JCP’s long history. Born in 1922 as the Japanese branch of the Communist International, the global federation of Marxist-Leninist parties created by Moscow, the JCP quickly adapted itself to local conditions. It was one of the few Japanese groups to stand up to the rise of imperial militarists in the run-up to World War II, and suffered as a result. “The JCP was the only political party that struggled against the past war of aggression with the sacrifice of members’ lives,” says JCP chairman Kazuo Shii. That principled stance earned the respect of many Japanese after the war ended, and JCP members were allowed to run for office. Though the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would come to control Japanese politics, the JCP provided a reliable leftist opposition bloc with the larger and more mainstream Japan Socialist Party.

Today the JCP is still relevant at a time when communists in other countries have all but vanished. While the largest Japanese parties lack a clear and cohesive identity, the JCP may benefit by virtue of actually standing for something—even if what it stands for is “a socialist/communist society,” as stated in its manifesto, in a decidedly capitalist country. “The JCP is a boutique party, but it’s the only political party in Japan that has a strong grassroots organization,” says Lam. “In a way, the communists are probably the most modern political party in Japan.” Despite holding just 18 of the 722 seats in the Diet, the JCP often functions as the only genuine opposition to politics-as-usual in Tokyo. Communist politicians have repeatedly uncovered damaging financial scandals in government—they’re too far removed from power to be enmeshed in Tokyo’s endemic corruption. “We are the watchdog, but we go further than that,” says Shii. “I think the advance of the JCP will be key to the advance of Japanese politics.”

It’s hard to believe that the most progressive political force in Japan still adheres to Marxism. (When I half-seriously asked one college-aged party member whether he reads the classics, he reached into his backpack and produced Volume II of the 13-volume Japanese translation of Das Kapital.) But the JCP will likely pick up protest votes in July’s legislative elections, and the party is zealously recruiting new members. “I think my friends and those around me have a lot of difficulty and hardship finding themselves, having any confidence in themselves,” says Suzuki, the Wako University student. “But as a member of the JCP, I have a wider perspective on my future. I know we have possibility.” Who said the war was over, comrade?

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