Red purists of Japan see their faith rewarded

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The Independent Online
At The height of the Cold War, so the story goes, a lofty American journal sent an urgent cable to its correspondent in Tokyo: "Will Japan turn Communist? Please file 1,000 words." Less than an hour later, the finished article came back: "No, no, and a thousand times, no."

Thirty years later, it is harder than ever to imagine a country less congenial to Marxism than Japan. Perched on the edge of Asia, within missile range of China, North Korea and the Russian Far East, for five decades it has sheltered gratefully under the American military umbrella.

Economically it has become the second most powerful country in the world, with a brand of protectionist capitalism which instinctively elevates the interests of giant corporations above workers and consumers.

All over the world, national communist parties have been tumbling to the temptations of social democracy. But for the past year, the Japan Communist Party (JCP) has been on a winning streak.

Earlier this year, a Communist candidate came within a hair's breadth of being elected mayor of Kyoto, one of Japan's most ancient and conservative cities. The party doubled its representation in the local assembly on the island of Okinawa, and in July the country's first Communist mayor for seven years won a by-election near Tokyo.

The party has nearly half a million members, and its newspaper, Red Flag, sells 3 million copies a day. In next Sunday's elections, it is contesting more constituencies than any other party, and if the latest polls are anything to go by, it will double its number of seats.

As usual in Japanese politics, there is both less and more to this than meets the eye. The day when the hammer and sickle flutters above Tokyo's Imperial Palace is a long way off - even the most optimistic projections grant the JCP no more than 45 of the 500 seats in the lower house of the Japanese Diet. But the JCP's modest renaissance says a lot about the ideological famine in Japanese politics. In many ways, the JCP is unique among the six major parties fighting the present election.

Founded in 1922, it is the country's oldest, with a mixed but honourable history. It was illegal for the first 33 years of its existence, and many of the JCP's leaders were persecuted and imprisoned for their opposition to militarism. The present generation was left remarkably unembarrassed by the collapse of global communism in 1989, having long before distanced itself from the Chinese and Soviet parties.

Among its domestic rivals, it is the only party never to have changed its name and to refuse corporate donations on principle. Above all, it distinguishes itself from the pack with a simple, but amazingly scarce commodity: cogent political policies.

Despite its historical associations, the JCP's current platform would bring little embarrassment to Left-leaning members of the British Labour Party. The party is against nationalisation, but in favour of a minimum wage and the kind of protection of workers espoused by the European Social Chapter.

It supports the abrogation of the Japan-US Security Treaty, but proposes replacing it with a non-military "friendship treaty". It rejects any possibility of compromise with any other party - thus disqualifying itself from any conceivable role in government for the foreseeable future.

It is this uncompromising impotence that gives the JCP its appeal. Since 1993, when the conservative Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority after 38 years of rule, mainstream politics has degenerated into a wretched scramble in which the lust for office has overcome any pretence of political principle.

Two years ago, the LDP came back into power, but only at the cost of an alliance with its former adversary, the Socialist Party, which promptly jettisoned its socialist principles. Until recently, the Socialists were the repository of the non-conservative and protest vote. Next Sunday they are expected to face annihilation.

The Communists may not be popular, but they are pure. They may not be rich, but they are uncorrupted. "People used to be repelled by the name Communist Party," says the JCP's secretary-general, Kazuo Ishii. "But these days it's a kind of symbol of belief, consistency and morale. For Japanese people, the only opposition is the Communist Party, and in the 21st century, we will be part of the government."