July's elections were the first in Japan in which online campaigning was permitted, and it was Japan's Communist Party that is widely seen as having made best use of it.
A smiling, smartly attired 30-year-old woman sits at an expansive table in a meeting room decorated with simple elegance on the fourth floor of a modern office building in central Tokyo.
Only the sunflower brooch – an antinuclear symbol – on the woman’s suit, and perhaps the large calligraphy scroll on the wall behind her that isn’t hung perfectly straight, betray the fact that this isn’t a scene from corporate Japan. Yoshiko Kira doesn’t look as if she intends to dismantle capitalism, but this is the headquarters of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), and she is one of its rising stars, and that’s her plan.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party cemented its grip on power with a victory in the upper house elections July 21, the unlikely other winners were the Communists. Ms. Kira was one of the party’s newly elected lawmakers who saw the JCP raise its representation in the House of Councilors from six seats to 11, giving it a large enough bloc to propose legislation. She was the first Communist to win in the five-seat Tokyo constituency in 12 years, while another young JCP candidate won in Osaka, the party’s first victory there in 15 years. Overall, the Communists came in second to the ruling party in terms of votes collected in Japan’s two giant metropolises.
How? Part of the reason has to do with the deterioration of the main political parties.
What had been the main opposition, the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan – which spent three years in government until its defeat in December's general election – is in almost utter disarray.
Two of the founding members have left the party, while the third, Naoto Kan – the prime minister at the time of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters – has just been suspended from the party for three months after supporting an independent candidate in the recent election. Some voters appeared to have seen the Communists as the only party able to counterbalance the nationalism of the Abe administration and its talk of amending Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso caused consternation in some quarters last week when he appeared to suggest, during a speech to a conservative think tank, that the current controversy around the Constitution could have been avoided if Japan had changed it in secret, as was done in Nazi Germany.
“When I was a child there were a lot of books in my house with pictures of the war and the atomic bombing. I used to worry that planes flying overhead might be carrying bombs. Then one day my mother told me that Japan can’t have wars anymore because of the Constitution, and I thought I was lucky to be born in this country,” Kira says. “But now the Abe government wants to change the Constitution so that Japan can start wars again.”
“It’s not just about war. When I was looking for work I applied to a large number of companies, and was told during interviews that hiring a woman was a risk. I realized there were many things about Japanese society that need changing,” says Kira.
Founded in 1922, the JCP is the oldest political party in Japan, and has enjoyed constant representation in parliament for longer than any other. But until recently, its image was one of older activists and it struggled to attract younger voters.
July's elections were the first in Japan in which online campaigning was permitted, and it was the JCP that is widely seen as having made best use of it. As well as savvy leveraging of social networks and video streaming platforms, the party created a series of online mascot characters that addressed individual issues such as the planned consumption tax hike, shady business practices, the heavy US military presence on Okinawa, and constitutional change.
“We were able to use the Net to reach out to younger people, many of whom don’t read newspapers or watch TV much. Through the characters, we could communicate issues simply and appeal to young voters,” says party spokesperson Toshio Ueki, who reports that the characters’ Web pages got 1.5 million hits in the weeks before the poll.
While the party has embraced new technology in its campaigning, it can still lay claim to a consistency in both policy and personnel that sets it apart from other parties in Japan. Kazuo Shii has led the party since 2000, during which time Japan has seen nine different prime ministers. And while some politicians have turned antinuclear since the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the JCP was always against nuclear power.
“One of the appeals of the Communists has been the clarity and consistency in their pledges; people find it refreshing,” suggests Takashi Inoguchi, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. “It’s healthy for the political development of the country that there is a party that is at least clear in what they say, whether you agree with their positions or not.”
Although Japan is not yet on the road to a workers’ paradise, having struck a chord with the electorate, the JCP may now have the opportunity to establish itself as the most cohesive opposition to the current government.
“If we did take power, the JCP wouldn’t try to implement a Communist economy immediately. It would require huge changes and we would seek the support of the people for each step,” Kira says. “And we would want to use the best parts of the current economic system, too.”