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Kazuo Shii is railing against injustices. Standing on top of a truck outside Tokyo’s busiest train station, his voice booming from speakers, the Japanese politician predicts that the sales tax hike will break the economy and ruin lives. He blames the gap between rich and poor on tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. He worries about the rickety finances of public social welfare programmes and the basic needs of middle-class families.

A crowd of about 150 people listening from the pavement applauds. Shii’s populist message has struck a chord here. It amounts to a full assault on the prime minister Shinzo Abe from an opposition politician who has a great deal of support from mainstream voters, despite his political organisation’s name: the Japan Communist party.

Mention communism and people assume you’re talking about China, Vietnam or Cuba – not Japan. Since the Japan Communist party was formed in 1922, its members have built an impressive organisation. While rooted in Marxist beliefs, the Jcp focuses on pacifism and social welfare. The party’s criticism of the Soviet Union and China decades ago, and rejection of violent revolution, saved it from being seen as a radical fringe. “There’s not much of a stigma associated with communism in Japan,” says Megumi Naoi, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego. In fact, she says, Japan’s intellectuals have historically been sympathetic to Marxism.

The Jcp benefits from being a left-wing protest vote. It seems to relish being in permanent opposition and is consistent in taking a stand against war, the US-Japan security alliance, nuclear energy, the imperial system and free trade. But the rise of nationalist parties has eroded its working-class base.

With 12 of 465 seats in the lower house of parliament and 14 of 242 in the upper house, it’s not about to oust Abe’s Liberal Democratic party. Yet at a local level the Jcp has a solid base, with the third-most assembly seats at prefectural level and second-most seats in city, town and village assemblies. Its percentage of elected female officials, 38 per cent, is the highest of any party.

If there’s an issue that irks Jcp loyalists it’s the Abe administration’s efforts to write Japan’s Self-Defense Forces into the constitution. The Sdf exist in a grey zone: the constitution’s Article 9 prevents the possession of “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential”. Eventually, the party hopes to phase out the Sdf – an oddly impractical view given China’s military build-up and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.

One of the keys to the party’s longevity is Shimbun Akahata (Red Flag), the Jcp’s newspaper. “Akahata spreads the Jcp’s perspective on daily events as they happen,” says the paper’s editor in chief Yoji Kogiso.

Disseminating the party line isn’t the paper’s only mission: it chases scoops too. Akahata won the coveted Japan Congress of Journalists award last year for revealing that a senior Japanese diplomat had asked the US not to reduce its nuclear arsenal. Without Akahata the Jcp would be less effective – and poorer. The paper’s annual revenue of ¥18bn (€150m) make up 80 per cent of the Jcp’s earnings. To reduce costs, volunteers help with distribution. “I deliver the Sunday paper at an apartment complex near my house,” says Kogiso. What worries him is a declining readership, from three million in the 1980s to fewer than one million today. “Akahata’s crisis is the party’s crisis,” says Kogiso.

Former party members wonder whether the Jcp can turn things around. Some have suggested changing the name to widen its appeal. Toshio Ueki, the party’s top spokesman, brushes aside the idea. “We need to fully explain the communist and socialist society that we are striving for. Given the world’s problems, it’s easier than ever to make a case,” he says. Voters will have to decide whether the Jcp’s uncompromising view is worth saving.

State of the nation

DEMOCRACY

The parties, places and personalities that shape contemporary Japanese politics.

Before you think the Communist party is the only player in Japanese politics, here’s a look at the more interesting people, institutions, buildings and locations at the heart of the nation’s democracy.

Shinzo Abe
Chosen by the ruling Liberal Democratic party (ldp) in late 2012, Abe has become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. He has dismissed speculation that he will run for a fourth term when his current tenure ends in September 2021.

Emperor Naruhito
The new emperor was enthroned this year and the Reiwa era began. The emperor presides over the opening ceremony at the beginning of a Diet (parliament) session but he has no real political power.

Diet building
The parliament building, also known as kokkai-gijido, was completed in 1936 and houses two legislative chambers: the 242-seat House of Councillors (upper house) and 465-seat House of Representatives (lower house).

Political parties
There are nine national parties. The ldp and the Komeito party form the ruling block. The ldp has led the country for much of the post-Second World War period. The largest of the ineffective opposition efforts is the Constitutional Democratic party of Japan, led by Yukio Edano.

Komeito party
Part of the ldp’s ruling block, Komeito was started by the religious group Soka Gakkai.

Kantei
The prime minister’s office and residence. The new Kantei was built in 2002 and is next door to the old official residence, which dates back to 1929.

Kasumigaseki
The district in Tokyo where most of the government ministry offices are located.

Campaign cars
Minivans and trucks fitted with loudspeakers are used by candidates during elections. You often see the politicians waving from the backseat of a moving car or giving speeches from atop a parked vehicle.

Ultra-nationalist organisations
These uyoku-dantai drive around in trucks and vans that are emblazoned with slogans and Japan’s wartime flag. They equip the vehicles with loudspeakers blaring songs and rhetoric from the era.

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