Communism gains acceptance in Japan

Jay Moore research at
Sun Jun 18 09:36:32 MDT 2000

Communism gains acceptance in Japan
Economic problems turn voters away from mainstream parties

By Sharon Moshavi, Boston Globe Correspondent, 6/18/2000

TOKYO - Motoki Sobue couldn't hide it anymore. The subterfuge was killing
him. So the university student got drunk, telephoned his parents, and
shouted out his secret: ''I am a communist!''

Terrified of what might happen next, he slammed down the receiver. But Sobue
was shocked by his family's reaction. They weren't angry.

''Later, I went home and explained everything, and now they vote communist,
too. Even my grandmother,'' said Sobue, now 25.

In Japan these days, being a communist is nothing to be ashamed of.
Communism may be out of favor with most of the world as it rushes feverishly
to embrace free-market capitalism, but the 78-year-old Japanese Communist
Party is gaining popularity in the world's second-largest economy.

The party is attracting an increasing number of disaffected Japanese - young
voters like Sobue, as well as older ones who are tired of politics as usual.
The Communist Party's populist preaching about workers' rights and social
welfare is finding an audience in a country suffering from an economic rut
that has destroyed financial security for many.

Kazuo Shii, a party leader and a second-generation communist, is credited
with orchestrating the party's renaissance. Shii, 45, though unprepossessing
of appearance with his fleshy face and big glasses, is something of an
anomaly among Japanese politicians: He's articulate, even charismatic. He
pops up regularly on television, on everything from political round tables
to variety shows. He plays the piano, he likes the opera.

Most importantly, he has dropped hard-line communist dogma. Some say he
doesn't sound much like a communist. ''In our view, communism and socialism
are inseparable from democracy,'' he said in a recent interview at the
party's four-story headquarters, which will soon be replaced by an 11-story

Dressed in an ill-fitting gray pinstripe suit, his black hair slicked down,
Shii said the violent overthrow of capitalism does not quite make the
party's agenda. Instead he voiced concern about overtime pay for workers,
with controlling the country's spiraling debt, and with balancing out
Japan's ''subservient'' relationship with the United States.

In fact, the Communists may be more in favor of a market economy than the
ruling party, which is trying to increase state intervention and state
power, said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst with Warburg Dillon Reed.
''It sounds rather ironic, but the Communists do see some of the things that
the market mechanism can improve for workers,'' Okazaki said.

The party's goal at the moment, Shii said, is to reform capitalism. ''We
envision a socialist society in the future, but we are not calling for it
just now,'' he said.

His earliest time frame is about 100 years from now, and even then, it will
be more like an evolution than a revolution.

In the meantime, ''Just say no'' might well be the Communist Party's motto.
As the second-largest opposition party in Japan, it has set itself up as
perhaps the loudest opponent of the status quo. No matter the issue, it
provides vocal opposition to almost anything the ruling party proposes.

That seems to strike a chord with Japanese, even those who don't support the
Communists. ''We need a strong opposition, someone who will challenge
things,'' said Mieko Yamashita, 58, a retired civil servant.

Like many Japanese, though, she doesn't want them to get too strong. ''They
make Japanese politics vivid, but I don't think they should ever lead the
country,'' she said.

Currently, the Japanese Communist Party holds 14 percent of the seats in the
Diet. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who dissolved Parliament Friday, has
called for elections on June 25, and many analysts expect the Communist
Party to do better, but not well enough to significantly change its

Many are still suspicious of the Communist Party, especially in the business
community. They voice worry about the party's growing appeal with frustrated

In a recent article in the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading
newspapers, Toyota's chairman, Hiroshi Okuda, was quoted as saying, ''If
they change their name, we had better watch out.''

There has been widespread speculation that the party intends to do exactly
that, as analysts agree that it would indeed boost the party's standing.
Party officials say they have received many letters from voters suggesting a
name change, but Shii insists that the Japanese Communist Party will remain
just that. ''We have the history and ideals of our party in this name,'' he

The party was founded in 1922, and was illegal through World War II. It was
one of the sole voices in Japan to speak up against the war, and that legacy
earned the party a measure of respect.

The Japanese Communists have long steered independent of their counterparts
in the Soviet Union and China. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the party
issued a statement welcoming the implosion. The Russian model wasn't
communism, Shii insists, because it didn't have freedom and democracy.

Under Shii, the party has been particularly effective at winning local
elections. Almost 4,500 Communist Party members serve as local assembly
members. And they can be effective at helping citizens organize. ''If you
want to stop a nuclear power plant or something, they help stop it. Nobody
else will,'' said Steven R. Reed, a political science professor at Chuo
University in Tokyo.

The party newspaper, Akahata, has gone from a propaganda sheet to a paper
perceived as real. It uncovers scandals and pays attention to stories the
normally timid mainstream media does not. The Sunday edition has almost 2
million subscribers.

This new face of Japanese Communism is managing to attract younger members
in particular. Makoto Abe, 25, got involved with the party several years
ago, after it was revealed that HIV-infected blood was knowingly being
distributed. ''The government and companies were making light of people's
lives to make profits,'' said Abe, who wore a bright orange Denver Broncos

He thinks too many people misunderstand communism. Today, working with the
party's youth wing, he has come up with his own definition: ''to think of
the suffering of the people and find a solution.''

This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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