THE LIFE OF THE PARTY

The red flag flew briefly over an idyllic patch of Shizuoka prefecture last week. At a hot-spring resort nestled amid tangerine orchards, the Japanese Communist Party staged a congress aimed at reversing its declining performance in national elections--a gathering it billed as a "historic" break from the past. In a 12-page platform, the 82-year-old party ceased to describe itself as a "mass vanguard," dropped overt criticisms of Japan's imperial system and Self-Defense Force (two institutions previously branded "reactionary") and advised members to "begin by sharing the common concerns and needs with politically uncommitted voters."

The party's recent setbacks do not, as outsiders might assume, stem from its espousal of Marxism in one of the world's most enthusiastically capitalist countries. Rather, the party has fallen victim to its own success. By the late 1990s communist candidates were garnering unprecedented national victories and attracting nearly one in 10 voters in recession-weary Japan. Embraced as clean, efficient and committed to social justice, they rapidly became models for rivals from other parties seeking to run--as the JCP always had--against a "corrupt" political establishment. Ironically, the trend culminated in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's rise three years ago on a pledge to "smash" his own party, the long-ruling Liberal Democrats, from within. "So many people bought into this big, dirty trick," says JCP spokesman Setsuzo Otaka. "But we don't mind if other politicians try to be sincere, clean and responsive to the people. That, in a way, is a welcome sign."

National elections held in November further reversed the crimson tide. Fought over new single-seat constituencies, these winner-take-all contests favored big parties; pundits heralded the emergence of a two-party system in which the LDP and opposition Democratic Party of Japan slugged it out (with the LDP winning just barely). Like Koizumi three years ago, the DPJ, too, ran on a manifesto of radical change--stealing a page from the communist playbook. When the votes were counted, JCP representation in the Diet's lower house had fallen from 20 seats to just nine. "The new electoral system made it even more difficult for small parties to win," says Kazuhiro Kobayashi, chief editorial writer at the daily Tokyo Shimbun. "The JCP needs new strategies to survive."

One emerged last week: commie lite. Although delegates speaking at the congress still referred to each other as "comrades" and endlessly cited their official propaganda organ, Red Flag, theirs isn't the communism of Stalin or Mao. Neither leader's tomes were even for sale at a temporary bookstore set up in a tent outside last week's meeting. Instead, shelves brimmed with titles on feminism, Japan's social-welfare system and the environment. Inside the hall, Chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa introduced a campaign to eliminate "confusing" terminology. Where the party had once opposed "American imperialism and monopoly capitalism," for example, it now pledged to "free Japan from U.S. control" and "stop politics that benefits big corporations instead of people." The aim, it seems, is to sound a bit less Red.

Many JCP policies are quite popular. It opposes a planned constitutional revision to expand the role of the country's military, denounces the ongoing war in Iraq and decries Koizumi's plan to slash local-government budgets. The party's main target constituency is disaffected yet politically uncommitted Japanese, a category it thinks may encompass 50 to 60 percent of all eligible voters. "Many feel insecure about their lives and express strong dissatisfaction with the government's economic policies," states the party's new platform, calling this group "decisive in determining the outcome of elections."

A new JCP recruiting drive aims to expand the rank and file to 500,000 by 2005, up 20 percent from today. Despite recent setbacks in national races, party membership has risen steadily since the mid-1990s, as have communist victories in local elections. Card-carrying members now occupy 4,158 seats in local assemblies, the most for any single party in Japan, and JCP-supported mayors hold more than 50 posts--making the communists a powerful grass-roots force. One typical victor, Tsuyoshi Hashimoto, won re-election in his district last month after providing free medical treatment for children not yet in school and government-sponsored afternoon day care to support working mothers.

The JCP's new strategy is likely to win more supporters than true converts. Like Yoshitoh Takeda, a 68-year-old former company executive, many Japanese use the party as an outlet for their frustration. "I am not a communist, but I think most JCP policies are fair and correct," he says. "I vote for them as the only party that stands firm against the [LDP's] arrogance. I would be glad to see them gain enough seats that the LDP feels a sense of crisis." Call it the dialectic of Japanese politics.

THE LIFE OF THE PARTY | News