Communist Party surges as Japan's economy withers

Waiting for the persimmon to fall: Japan's top Communist says Marx is coming back to life

TOKYO, Apr. 19, 2009 (AP) Under a big red flag, the headquarters of the Communist Party of Japan are the center of the most vibrant grass-roots movement in the country. The party's ranks are swelling, it has 24,000 branch offices and more than a million people read its newspaper. Only one party -- the one that runs the country -- beats it at fundraising.

As Japan's economy withers, communism is coming to life.

Dormant in the boom years and marginalized even as Japan more recently clawed its way out of recession, the party's litany of capitalist evils is now resonating deeply with many Japanese -- especially the young -- who are feeling the pain of an economic downturn that some say has reached depression dimensions.

While the Communist Party -- which is the fourth-largest party in parliament, but has only 16 of the total 722 seats -- is not likely to take over anytime soon, it is making itself felt.

On college campuses, in particular, Karl Marx is popular again.

'I have never voted before, but I intend to vote communist in the next elections,' said Suguru Yagi, a Tokyo college student.

Yagi, 22, said he had considered joining the party because he agrees with many of its policies and sees it as the defender of the working class. As a student about to graduate, he is concerned about the shrinking work force, and the difficulties he may find in getting a good job.

Leading Japan's communist renaissance is Kazuo Shii, the round-faced party chief, who has become one of Japan's most recognizable politicians and something of a media star, grilling the country's conservative leaders from his perch in parliament and unfailingly appearing before the cameras with what boils down to: 'I told you so.'

Financial meltdowns worldwide. Banks and manufacturers going belly up, or begging for bailouts. Unemployment and unrest on the rise.

Capitalism, Shii concludes, is doomed.

'It is inevitable,' he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. 'When the persimmon is ripe, it will fall from the tree.'

Shii, and the party, believe that time is fast approaching. And, in Asia's most dedicated bastion of capitalism, more people are beginning to agree.

According to the party, about 1,000 new members are joining its ranks every month -- a sharp contrast to the massive exodus that has plagued the ruling Liberal Democrats, who have dropped from about 5 million members in their heyday to about 1 million members now.

The Japan Communist Party was founded as an illegal movement in 1922, but legalized after Japan's World War II defeat in 1945. It then struggled through polarizing splits with the Soviets and Communist Chinese in an effort to maintain its independence. It also has distanced itself from the radical left, which gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s, but has since died down.

Shii attributed the renewed interest in the party to voter disillusionment with future prospects in an increasingly difficult job market. People who have lost their jobs or their pensions are turning to the party. There is increasing distrust of the centrist Liberal Democrats and their main rivals, the Democratic Party of Japan, who are also conservative and are, in fact, led by a former Liberal Democrat.

The communist revival has also been spurred on by the pop media.

Marx's Das Kapital is now available in cartoon form, and a surprise best-seller of the year has been a revival version of 'Kanikosen,' a 1929 novel about exploited workers on a crab boat. That novel, too, is out in manga form, and is being made into a movie.

In Japan, the Communist Party has swelled to about 415,000 members at latest count and boasts a newspaper, Red Flag, with a readership of 1.6 million. It has also started a channel on YouTube featuring video of Shii addressing parliament and other tidbits for those who want to keep up with party goings-on.

Shii said his party is willing to work within Japan's system -- he said it does not advocate immediate or violent revolution.

'We want to fix social inequities within the framework of capitalism,' Shii said. 'It will take time for people to make adjustments and be ready. We aren't advocating a sudden change to communism.'

Outside of parliament is where the Communist Party has been making its biggest strides.

Though weak at the national level, the communists boast more elected officials than any other party because of their strong presence in local and prefectural assemblies, where they have more than 3,000 seats.

Party members are free to devote as much, or little, of their time as they choose -- from simply voting communist when elections come around to helping run social activities and youth programs.

Because of the devotion of its members, the party's campaign machine is formidable.

And, while not expected to win big, the communists are looking at modest gains when the next parliamentary elections are held -- sometime before October -- because of the growing unpopularity of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is widely seen as being in disarray and unable to lead Japan out of its deepening economic recession.

The Democrats are dogged by scandals of their own. But Shii complained that the focus of the media on the potential emergence of a two-party system has created an even darker shadow from which his party must emerge.

Even so, with younger voters, the communists are doing well.