Red Flag flies in the face of Japan's riches: Terry McCarthy in Tokyo reports on an unlikely base for communist ideals

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A JAPANESE Communist Party sounds like a contradiction in terms - like a Unification Party in Yugoslavia, or a Disarmament Party in Iraq. With 2 per cent unemployment, the developed world's second highest per capita income (after Switzerland) and an annual trade surplus equivalent to the GDP of Austria, Japan would appear to be firmly embedded in the rich boys' club. Mercedes and Armani carry more weight than Marx and Engels for the average Japanese consumer.

Still, in the democratic world, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), with 400,000 members, is second in size only to the French Communist Party. It regularly wins seats in both houses of parliament and publishes a daily newspaper, Akahata (Red Flag), with a circulation of three million. Furthermore, the JCP is convinced that its brand of scientific socialism is the true path to a free and fair society.

The Japanese communists take themselves very seriously. It took several weeks of negotiations, lists of proposed questions and an exhaustive corporate history of The Independent before we were finally admitted through the video cameras and security guards for an interview with the party's number two, Tetsuzo Fuwa.

The Ultimate Leader of the JCP is Kenji Miyamoto, who has led the party with an iron grip for 32 years. Now 83, Mr Miyamoto rarely makes public appearances, and the relatively sprightly Mr Fuwa, 62, has taken to speaking for the party in his position as Chairman of the Presidium of the Central Committee.

Mr Fuwa, far from being a table-thumping ideologue or an anguished intellectual, turned out to be a smiling, soft-spoken man who listened carefully and responded directly to questions rather than reeling out stale lines of propaganda.

So why does the JCP exist? 'Although Japan is called one of the most successful economies in the world, this has led to many contradictions for the ordinary people,' he said. 'For example, the atrocious working conditions for ordinary people, leading to karoshi (death from overwork); the fact that agriculture has no future (in Japan); the fact that the enviromental question is worsened by big business; the fact that US military bases are still in Japan half a century after the war. All these problems demand progressive solutions.'

Mr Fuwa was ploughing a rich furrow. Despite the impressive economic statistics, opinion polls repeatedly show that few Japanese regard their country as an economic superpower. Calls for an improvement in the lifestyle of 'ordinary people' are getting louder.

'There has been lots of talk recently about measures to counter the recession,' Mr Fuwa continued. Two weeks ago the government announced a pounds 44bn supplementary budget to revive the economy and stop the fall of the stock market. 'But the government is not thinking about the people. It is thinking about big business and the banks.'

Many party policies are populist rather than hardline Marxist. In this week's editions of Akahata, several features attacked bribery scandals affecting other parties (the JCP alone has never been accused of taking money for political favours). Other articles claimed that rush-hours on the railways were aggravated by private train companies keeping their monopolies by bribing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, attacked the destruction of the ozone layer by big industry, and argued for more housing for the elderly in crowded Tokyo.

However, mainstream politicians regard the JCP as potentially subversive, and police keep it under constant surveillance. Mr Fuwa rejected a suggestion that the party could improve its standing by changing its name. 'The JCP is proud of its history and its policies. If we change our name, our opponents will charge that the contents remain the same.'

The ructions in the communist world have affected the JCP, particularly the shootings in Tiananmen Square, which caused the party to lose seats in elections. 'It is our experience that whenever a communist party overseas makes a mistake, domestically the JCP suffers. This is against reason. We severed ties with the Chinese Communist Party in 1967, but many people don't realise this.'

As the LDP lurches from scandal to scandal, buying off voters on the way, the JCP is quaintly independent and unashamedly dedicated to 'reason' in politics. 'Our policy line is not dependent on election results,' Mr Fuwa says. He and his comrades seem to have found their place in Japanese politics: the incorruptible, and therefore permanently in opposition, party.