TOKYO — It’s Saturday night and the only party most 23-year-olds are thinking about involves Kirin beer and thumping music.
But Yasuhisa Wakabayashi is sipping green tea and explaining why he joined the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). “Capitalism has its good points, I don’t want to see it completely destroyed. But people should have the same start in life, so education and health care should be free — those are the basics,” says Wakabayashi, sitting in the local party office in Tsunashima, a working-class district of Yokohama.
Wakabayashi is one of a small but growing number of young new recruits to the JCP. After decades of falling membership, the party has seen its membership grow for 15 consecutive months. It has taken in 14,000 members since JCP record-keeping began in 2007.
The weak economy is at the center of this resurgence. The lifetime employment guarantees and generous company pensions that Japanese workers once enjoyed are now just a memory. Hundreds of thousands of temporary workers are being laid off amid the global slowdown.
Naturally, the JCP is jumping on this political opportunity. “The law governing temporary dispatch workers was changed in 1999, allowing the current situation to develop," says Toshio Ueki, a party official from JCP headquarters in Tokyo. "The Communist Party was the only party that opposed those changes."
In an echo of Marx's Communist Manifesto and other political writings of the previous century, the recent rise of the JCP has also been bolstered by a popular book.
"Kanikosen — The Crab Cannery Ship," by Takiji Kobayashi, has become a huge hit in Japan. The 1929 Marxist novel is a kind of Japanese version of Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle," telling the story of harshly-treated food industry workers. Last year it sold 559,000 copies. According to its publisher Shichosha, sales remain brisk and a movie version is planned for release later this year.
“It expresses the feelings of many young people who are working in similar conditions today,” says Wakabayashi, who works in a factory making heavy machinery.
Then, of course, there's Japan's increasingly feeble Liberal Democratic Party, which currently suffers popularity ratings of about 10 percent.
"The government in this country doesn't listen to the citizens at all," Wakabayashi says. "When I hear the JCP members in parliament speaking — that's the voice of the people.
He's not alone in that assessment. Question time in parliament is hardly the stuff of viral web videos. But this 2008 clip of JCP Chairman Kazuo Shii’s grilling of Prime Minister Taro Aso and Labor Minister Yoichi Masuzoe on the treatment of part-time and temporary workers has attracted more than 100,000 views on YouTube and on NicoNico Douga, a Japanese video-sharing site:
To attract younger members, the JCP now has its own YouTube channel. More than 12,000 comments, mostly supportive, have been posted on NicoNico Douga alone.
But given its recent resurgence, can the JCP become a force in Japan's mainstream political arena? Don't bet on it.
“Even if the Liberal Democratic Party loses the next election it would be difficult for one of the other parties to invite the communists to join a coalition,” says Takashi Koyama, a visiting professor of politics at Akita International University, “I think they’d have to change the name of the party.”
Recent recruit Wakabayashi is more hopeful: “If the party keeps growing like it is, you couldn’t say there is no chance of it gaining power," he says. “Many friends of my age, even those with full-time jobs, have seen their wages cut and have no money to go out and spend. I don’t think we were born to work and live like company robots."
So this young communist looks to a brighter future: “We’ve seen the collapse of communism and now we’re seeing the collapse of capitalism. Surely, somewhere in between there must be a better middle road for us to travel.”
More GlobalPost dispatches from Japan: