Even before the global economic crisis started to bite late last year, political pundits in Japan had already noticed a surprising phenomenon. A 1920s novel about the harsh lives of the workers on Japanese crab fishing and canning ships in the Sea of Okhotsk, written by a young communist author, had become a surprise bestseller. "Kanikosen" (The Crab Factory Ship) sold well over 500,000 copies last year, while a manga version published by East Press added another 200,000 to the total.
The book, detailing the tyrannical management practices and inhuman living conditions on the ships and the struggle of the workers to unite in their defense, was penned by a 26-year-old bank clerk named Takiji Kobayashi in 1929 — four years before he was arrested and tortured to death by the Japanese police.
Last May, the media began taking note of the renewed interest in the book and started to link it with growing dissatisfaction with modern capitalism, especially among the younger generation. The Yomiuri Shimbun ran a story titled “Kanikosen: Sad Reminder, Lamenting Disparity, Young People’s Empathy,” and the Mainichi followed with “Kanikosen, Proletarian Masterpiece—Unusual Bestseller.” The success of the novel, written from a Marxist viewpoint, also signaled a growing interest among ordinary Japanese voters in the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which until recently had been greatly vilified.
Throughout the boom times of Japan’s “economic miracle,” the JCP had looked like a ghost at the feast of an incredibly successful capitalist system. The truth, however, is that Japan’s former economic success had been bought at a high cost in human terms, with unpaid overtime, low quality of life, and even the infamous phenomenon of "karoshi," or death caused by overwork. To this has been added a two-tier employment system of higher-paid, directly employed workers and lower-paid agency staff, as major Japanese corporations have sought greater competitiveness through cost cutting. It’s this situation that makes the extreme exploitation depicted in "Kanikosen" resonate with the present generation.
In a recent essay in the Daily Yomiuri, Waseda University literature professor Hirokazu Toeda wrote, “Kanikosen is discussed and analyzed every time a critical social issue occurs — the disparity society, severe labor conditions, consumer product falsification, random killings. This is a unique characteristic of the ‘Kanikosen’ boom and it now is symbolizing or mirroring all those negative aspects of current day Japan.”
The Japanese Communist Party, which operates from a large headquarters in Tokyo’s Yoyogi area, has seen the benefit. In the last general election in 2005, the JCP grabbed a solid 7.25% of the vote, behind only the Liberal Democratic Party (38%), the Democratic Party of Japan (31%), and Soka Gakkai-sponsored New Komeito (13.25%). Since then, support and membership has been growing. Throughout 2008, approximately 1,000 new members joined every month, swelling the ranks of party members to more than 415,000.
In the same month that the major daily newspapers started running articles about "Kanikosen," the JCP’s leader, Kazuo Shii, was invited onto a “wide” show to explain Marxism to the masses. “TV Asahi asked me to appear and pick up some words and phrases from Marx’s 'Das Kapital' to show using flip boards to the audience,” the 54-year old Shii said at his party’s headquarters.
“I made flip boards with three messages: ‘After me, the deluge.’ This is the slogan of capitalism — in order to get the profits, they don’t care at all what will happen afterwards. The second phrase has been borne out by the subprime crisis: ‘Excessive credit system will give rise to excessive speculation.’ The third one was Engel’s expression that “nature will revenge itself on people,” connected to environmental destruction. This was the first time in Japanese history that a commercial television station has shown such phrases from Marx and Engels.”
Since being elected leader in 2000, Shii, a robust looking man who emanates an atmosphere of pugnacious concern, has worked hard to champion the rights of Japan’s increasing army of temp workers, who are usually the first in line to suffer in any economic downturn. He has also made strides in the party’s decades-long struggle to rebrand itself.
Communist party rebranded
During the Cold War, the JCP was typically seen as a dangerous undemocratic organization, fomenting violence and chaos at the behest of an international communist conspiracy to take over the world — an image that still resonates with many older voters. But, spurred by a sense of disillusionment with the manipulative regimes in Moscow and Beijing, the JCP started to distance itself from international communism in the ’60s and develop a more democratic and nationalistic communism that focused on the concerns and values of ordinary Japanese voters.
This process had advanced so far that, when the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to the disbanding of the Soviet Communist Party in 1991, the JCP reacted enthusiastically and was the only communist party in the world to issue a statement that positively welcomed its demise. For many years before this, the JCP had been a stern critic of Moscow’s attempts to extend its power around the world.
“The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, as if it represented world socialism, continuously caused evils of great-power chauvinism and hegemonism which had nothing in common with socialism,” Shii pointed out in a recent speech.
Because of its rejection of foreign control of Japanese affairs, whether from Moscow, Beijing or Washington, it could be claimed that the JCP is actually a more nationalist party than the so-called far right groups with their sound trucks and imperialist rhetoric. Like the far right, the JCP calls for the return of the Kurile Islands from Russia and restricts party membership to Japanese citizens, but unlike these parties, it also strongly and vocally opposes Japan’s subservience to the US. According to Shii, many of the problems Japan faces come from its unequal relationship with its main ally.
The most obvious symbol of this skewed relationship is the continued large-scale U.S. military presence, 18 years after the Cold War ended. To many Japanese, this represents a continuation of the postwar occupation that can no longer be justified by the threat of a Soviet superpower.
Economic data tells a similar story. In 2007 the U.S. ran yet another trade deficit with Japan — $82 billion — suggesting that Japan’s economic role is to make the goods that America consumes. In order to support such exports, however, Japan has kept the yen artificially low by buying dollars and driving down interest rates.
Opposed to subservience to U.S.
“America has a lot of debts and these have been exported to other countries,” Shii comments. “For example, Japan bought a lot of national dollar bonds. In order to support this, Japan’s interest rate has always been very low, almost zero, which is unbelievable in the capitalist system. This is in order to support the United States, and this shows how Japan is subservient to the United States economically.”
Although the JCP’s rhetoric sometime strikes an anti-American and anti-globalist note, Shii is keen to point out the importance of good international relationships. “We don’t endorse anti-globalization,” Shii points out. “What we are calling for is democratic and orderly globalization. This means that the economic sovereignty of each nation should be respected and equal, and mutually beneficial relations should be respected.”
At a time of economic instability linked in the public’s mind to international finance and speculation, the JCP’s message is a popular one. But what about the details?
“In the face of the present financial crisis, three things are important. First, we have to prevent the negative effects of this being imposed on ordinary people. Second, we have to change the character of the Japanese economy, from one depending on foreign demand to one based on internal domestic demand. Third, we have to be clear that the financial crisis we are currently witnessing has been the result of excessive deregulation.”
In 2009, the LDP-Komeito coalition government of Prime Minister Taro Aso will have to call a general election. With the economic situation shaky, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, led by Ichiro Ozawa, looks set to win. But for Shii, the two main parties are almost identical in terms of economic outlook and their views of Japan’s continuing relationship with America. The fact that Ozawa used to be secretary general of the LDP before joining the DPJ has strengthened this perception among voters who are increasingly cynical about the main parties.
“The people are disillusioned by the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan,” Shii says. “A public opinion poll recently showed a very interesting result. When asked who would be a better prime minister, Ozawa or Aso, Ozawa narrowly won. But a majority of the respondents also said that neither of them is appropriate. People are beginning to realize that it isn’t enough to change the face on the package, you have to change the contents of government as well.”
Although economic times are hard, conditions are far from being as bad as they were on Kobayashi’s fictitious factory ships in the waters off Siberia. Nevertheless, Japan’s export-geared economy, dominated by large corporations keen to retain competiveness by squeezing labor, supported by a political system that relies heavily on big business contributions, is creating the dissatisfaction needed to fuel political change. Although the Communists are unlikely to win power anytime soon, under the leadership of Kazuo Shii, they seem set to make impressive gains in 2009.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today