Communism gains acceptance in Japan 

 Economic problems turn voters away from mainstream parties

 By Sharon Moshavi, Globe Correspondent, 6/18/2000 

 TOKYO - Motoki Sobue couldn't hide it anymore. The subterfuge was
killing him. So the
 university student got drunk, telephoned his parents, and shouted out
his secret: ''I am a
 communist!''

 Terrified of what might happen next, he slammed down the receiver. But
Sobue was shocked by
 his family's reaction. They weren't angry.

 ''Later, I went home and explained everything, and now they vote
communist, too. Even my
 grandmother,'' said Sobue, now 25.

 In Japan these days, being a communist is nothing to be ashamed of.
Communism may be out of
 favor with most of the world as it rushes feverishly to embrace
free-market capitalism, but the
 78-year-old Japanese Communist Party is gaining popularity in the
world's second-largest
 economy.

 The party is attracting an increasing number of disaffected Japanese -
young voters like Sobue, as
 well as older ones who are tired of politics as usual. The Communist
Party's populist preaching
 about workers' rights and social welfare is finding an audience in a
country suffering from an
 economic rut that has destroyed financial security for many.

 Kazuo Shii, a party leader and a second-generation communist, is
credited with orchestrating the
 party's renaissance. Shii, 45, though unprepossessing of appearance with
his fleshy face and big
 glasses, is something of an anomaly among Japanese politicians: He's
articulate, even charismatic.
 He pops up regularly on television, on everything from political round
tables to variety shows. He
 plays the piano, he likes the opera.

 Most importantly, he has dropped hard-line communist dogma. Some say he
doesn't sound much
 like a communist. ''In our view, communism and socialism are inseparable
from democracy,'' he
 said in a recent interview at the party's four-story headquarters, which
will soon be replaced by an
 11-story tower.

 Dressed in an ill-fitting gray pinstripe suit, his black hair slicked
down, Shii said the violent
 overthrow of capitalism does not quite make the party's agenda. Instead
he voiced concern about
 overtime pay for workers, with controlling the country's spiraling debt,
and with balancing out
 Japan's ''subservient'' relationship with the United States.

 In fact, the Communists may be more in favor of a market economy than
the ruling party, which is
 trying to increase state intervention and state power, said Shigenori
Okazaki, a political analyst with
 Warburg Dillon Reed. ''It sounds rather ironic, but the Communists do
see some of the things that
 the market mechanism can improve for workers,'' Okazaki said.

 The party's goal at the moment, Shii said, is to reform capitalism. ''We
envision a socialist society in
 the future, but we are not calling for it just now,'' he said.

 His earliest time frame is about 100 years from now, and even then, it
will be more like an evolution
 than a revolution. 

 In the meantime, ''Just say no'' might well be the Communist Party's
motto. As the second-largest
 opposition party in Japan, it has set itself up as perhaps the loudest
opponent of the status quo. No
 matter the issue, it provides vocal opposition to almost anything the
ruling party proposes. 

 That seems to strike a chord with Japanese, even those who don't support
the Communists. ''We
 need a strong opposition, someone who will challenge things,'' said
Mieko Yamashita, 58, a retired
 civil servant.

 Like many Japanese, though, she doesn't want them to get too strong.
''They make Japanese
 politics vivid, but I don't think they should ever lead the country,''
she said.

 Currently, the Japanese Communist Party holds 14 percent of the seats in
the Diet. Prime Minister
 Yoshiro Mori, who dissolved Parliament Friday, has called for elections
on June 25, and many
 analysts expect the Communist Party to do better, but not well enough to
significantly change its
 position.

 Many are still suspicious of the Communist Party, especially in the
business community. They voice
 worry about the party's growing appeal with frustrated voters.

 In a recent article in the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading
newspapers, Toyota's chairman,
 Hiroshi Okuda, was quoted as saying, ''If they change their name, we had
better watch out.''

 There has been widespread speculation that the party intends to do
exactly that, as analysts agree
 that it would indeed boost the party's standing. Party officials say
they have received many letters
 from voters suggesting a name change, but Shii insists that the Japanese
Communist Party will
 remain just that. ''We have the history and ideals of our party in this
name,'' he said.

 The party was founded in 1922, and was illegal through World War II. It
was one of the sole
 voices in Japan to speak up against the war, and that legacy earned the
party a measure of respect.

 The Japanese Communists have long steered independent of their
counterparts in the Soviet Union
 and China. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the party issued a statement
welcoming the
 implosion. The Russian model wasn't communism, Shii insists, because it
didn't have freedom and
 democracy.

 Under Shii, the party has been particularly effective at winning local
elections. Almost 4,500
 Communist Party members serve as local assembly members. And they can be
effective at helping
 citizens organize. ''If you want to stop a nuclear power plant or
something, they help stop it.
 Nobody else will,'' said Steven R. Reed, a political science professor
at Chuo University in Tokyo.

 The party newspaper, Akahata, has gone from a propaganda sheet to a
paper perceived as real. It
 uncovers scandals and pays attention to stories the normally timid
mainstream media does not. The
 Sunday edition has almost 2 million subscribers.

 This new face of Japanese Communism is managing to attract younger
members in particular.
 Makoto Abe, 25, got involved with the party several years ago, after it
was revealed that
 HIV-infected blood was knowingly being distributed. ''The government and
companies were
 making light of people's lives to make profits,'' said Abe, who wore a
bright orange Denver
 Broncos T-shirt. 

 He thinks too many people misunderstand communism. Today, working with
the party's youth
 wing, he has come up with his own definition: ''to think of the
suffering of the people and find a
 solution.''

 This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2000. 
  Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company. 


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