The Japanese Communist Party Has Been a Vital Presence in Japan’s Politics

The Japanese Communist Party turns 100 today. Its activists challenged the authoritarian emperor system of prewar Japan, and it remains an important countervailing force in a deeply conservative and conformist political culture.

Secretary General of the Japanese Communist Party Kyuichi Tokuda addresses Japanese soldiers, repatriated after World War II, in Tokyo, Japan, on July 6, 1949. (PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

Today’s Japanese Communist Party (JCP) may hold only a small fraction of the seats in Japan’s parliament, the National Diet. However, it exudes a presence as an outspoken critic and watchdog of the ruling regime that is disproportionate to its size.

In 2019, for example, the JCP newspaper Akahata reported that the late conservative prime minister Abe Shinzō had privately invited numerous political supporters to the state-funded “cherry blossom viewing event” for honoring meritorious achievements. The following year, it revealed that Abe’s successor, Suga Yoshihide, had blocked the appointment of six scholars to the Science Council of Japan due to their political views. Both revelations triggered widespread public outrage against corruption and abuse of power by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cabinet.

From its establishment by the Communist International one hundred years ago, whose leaders hoped that it would lead a proletarian revolution in Japan, the JCP has undergone multiple transformations. It has survived into the post–Cold War period as a small but significant countervailing force against the excesses of the country’s political powerholders. As Japan’s oldest political party, it is a unique player on the domestic scene, with few if any true counterparts in the developed capitalist world.

The Origins of Japanese Communism

Japan’s socialist movement started amid harsh state repression in the late nineteenth century with the country’s emergence as an imperial and industrial power. In 1898, Katayama Sen, Kōtoku Shusui, and others formed the Socialist Study Group. Three years later, they established the Social Democratic Party, Japan’s first socialist political party, which was banned shortly after its foundation.

In 1903, Kōtoku Shusui and Sakai Toshihiko formed the socialist group Heiminsha. It became a vocal opponent of the Japanese war against Russia that broke out the following year, and the authorities forced it to disband within two years. In 1910, the year when Japan formally annexed its neighbor Korea, the imperial government uncovered a plot to assassinate the emperor and responded by opportunistically arresting and convicting a group of socialists, including Kōtoku and others unrelated to the plot.

Kōtoku and eleven others were executed in what became known as the High Treason Incident. Katayama fled to the United States, while Sakai and others kept a low profile in Japan, publishing works that avoided provoking the wrath of the watchful state authorities.

The social disruptions linked to the economic boom and bust of World War I ushered in a new era of activism. In 1918, nationwide riots erupted over the soaring price of rice. The following year, massive anti-imperial protests broke out in Korea and China, while in Moscow, the Bolsheviks and their allies established the Communist International, or Comintern, with the aim of exporting communist revolution across the world.

The Comintern communicated with Japanese collaborators through two routes from Moscow: a “western route” via the United States and an “eastern route” via Siberia and Shanghai. The Shanghai-based Grigory Voitinsky managed the eastern route. Votinsky supervised the establishment of three new organizations in the region: the Korean Communist Party (set up in Irkutsk and Shanghai) in May 1921, the Communist Party of China (CPC) in July 1921, and the JCP in July 1922.

The manager of the western route was Katayama Sen, who had escaped to the United States after the 1911 High Treason Incident and was further radicalized after meeting Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and other communist leaders in New York in 1917, before they returned to Russia to lead the revolution there. Katayama and his fellow Japanese immigrants in the US translated Comintern-related literature from English to Japanese and reported on Japanese social conditions to Moscow, acting as the primary link between the Comintern and Japanese socialists in the preparatory phase of the JCP’s establishment.

Katayama became a founding member of the Communist Party of America in 1919 and was appointed head of the Comintern’s Pan-American Agency. He later moved to the Soviet Union and became an Executive Committee member of the Comintern in 1922.

The Kanto Massacre

For the first few years after the establishment of the East Asian Communist parties, the Comintern viewed Japan, with its advanced industrial base and large working class, as its key target for promoting revolution in the region. However, with the formation of a united front between the CPC and the nationalist Kuomintang in 1924, China replaced Japan as the primary target for revolutionary intervention. As a result, the early JCP operated with a high degree of autonomy from Soviet authorities.

The JCP is said to have been established on July 15, 1922, in a secret meeting of eight men held in a founding member’s room in Shibuya, Tokyo. Riddled with internal divisions and subjected to frequent police crackdowns from the start, the underground party did not survive for long.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed much of downtown Tokyo and Yokohama in September 1923, there was a campaign of rumors instigated by Japanese state authorities that incited widespread massacres of Korean, Chinese, and other suspected enemies of the state by military, police, and vigilante forces. While the massacres were taking place, military and police officials opportunistically assassinated key leftist leaders under the cover of martial law, including Ōsugi Sakae.

JCP leaders held a secret meeting in a Tokyo suburb in late October that year, where they decided to dissolve the underground JCP. The party leader Yamakawa Hitoshi argued that in the postmassacre environment, they had no choice but to first work toward building a legal proletarian party with a mass base.

When the JCP was reestablished three years later, however, this was not the direction followed by the new party. In the place of Yamakawa, Fukumoto Kazuo emerged as the new party’s theoretical leader. In sharp contrast to Yamakawa’s bottom-up emphasis, the fiery and theoretically inclined Fukumoto argued that revolution was imminent in Japan, and so it was time to purify the party as a vanguard of true communists.

Fukumoto’s arguments found a receptive audience among elite university student activists but had divisive effects on mass organizations. As the Comintern strengthened its grip on the JCP, both Yamakawa and Fukumoto were subjected to criticisms for their mistaken strategies and Comintern officials appointed a new party leadership in 1927. Reflecting the Comintern’s emphasis on building a mass party, intellectuals like Fukumoto were excluded from the new leadership, with members from a working-class background replacing them.

Meanwhile, Yamakawa’s group was expelled from the party. They would later reorganize around the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) after the end of World War II.

Repression and Reemergence

The imperial Japanese state continued to crack down harshly on communists and suspected sympathizers. As jingoism rose to feverish levels after the Kwantung Army’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, domestic repression against leftists intensified. Mass arrests peaked during this period, with many of those arrested renouncing their communist convictions under police cajoling and pressure.

Police infiltrated the JCP with spies, gaining inside information and triggering a destructive spiral of paranoid distrust among party members. They also widely used methods of torture against arrested communists. One of the JCP members killed by police torture in this period was the writer Kobayashi Takiji, author of the proletarian novel The Crab Cannery Ship. In a period of rising social inequality during the early 2000s, there was a resurgence of interest in the novel among Japanese people, and it became a runaway best-seller in 2008.

With the end of World War II, incarcerated JCP leaders emerged from prison thanks to a US occupation directive to the Japanese government to free its political prisoners. While these leaders were later widely criticized for holding the naive belief that their revolutionary agenda could be pursued under the US occupation, their initial optimism derived in part from the fact that the US military had been their “liberation army.”

The reliance of the JCP leadership on the US occupation for their postwar release from prison reflected their disadvantageous position compared with other communist parties such as those in Europe. The French and Italian communists emerged in the postwar period with an organizational base established through their wartime resistance movements. Lacking such a base, the postwar JCP relied heavily on Korean activists in Japan to finance and build its organization.

Of the roughly one thousand supporters who gathered in Western Tokyo to greet the JCP heroes emerging from prison on October 10, 1945, half or more were Korean. In the context of postcolonial liberation, there was a widespread perception that the Korean people and the JCP had both been victimized by the imperial regime and were now emerging together to construct a new era.

The Reverse Course

Unlike the occupation of Germany, the US occupation of Japan was an indirect one that governed through the established Japanese authorities. It was known as SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers). While SCAP’s basic policy was to use and not necessarily to support the existing government, the reliance of US officials on a stable and functioning native administration had the effect of supporting and strengthening it.

It had initially seemed that the stated goal of the occupation to demilitarize and democratize Japan dovetailed with the JCP’s program for a two-stage revolution that would aim first for a democratic transformation of the country. However, the JCP’s ebullient appraisal of the US “liberation army” was short-lived. A watershed event came with SCAP’s orders to cancel the JCP-led general strike planned for February 1, 1947.

The cancellation of the general strike coincided with the intensification of the Cold War: over the months that followed, the US government announced the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. In what has come to be known as the “reverse course,” the emphasis of US occupation policy shifted away from demilitarization and democratization and toward the reconstruction of Japan as an anti-communist bulwark.

For its part, the JCP adopted a new line of anti-American nationalism, attacking the incumbent government for its “traitorous” collaboration with the United States. This nationalist reorientation seemed to strike a popular chord, with the JCP winning an unprecedented thirty-five seats in the lower house of the Diet and nearly 10 percent of the vote in the January 1949 election. Optimistic party activists anticipated that with further gains in the next general election, they would be able to take power.

However, a series of mysterious terrorist attacks occurred in the summer, for which law enforcement officials and the mass media blamed the JCP. In September 1949, the Japanese authorities disbanded the Korean League, a powerful ally of the party, as a terrorist organization. By this time, hopes for further progress on the electoral front had evaporated. The JCP went on to lose all its parliamentary seats in the election of 1952.

The Cominform Turn

In January 1950, the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), which had been established three years earlier to succeed the Comintern, publicly criticized the JCP for holding the mistaken belief that peaceful revolution could be achieved under the US occupation. It called on the JCP to lead a vigorous “anti-imperial struggle” against the occupiers.

This shocking Cominform intervention into Japanese affairs produced a bitter factional split in the JCP. While the party leadership initially rejected the Cominform’s criticism, a significant minority of dissenting party activists embraced it.

On May 30, 1950, Japanese and Korean leftist demonstrators clashed violently with US occupation troops in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace Plaza. As US forces held a Memorial Day celebration, the left-wing activists gathered to protest against the accelerating move toward repression and war in Japan and Korea, where full-scale war would break out weeks later.

The Japanese media presented the clash as having resulted from the JCP’s militant turn. In fact, the party leadership had yet to adopt a policy of confrontation with the occupation forces. Impatient JCP activists had acted in open defiance of both the US authorities and their own party leadership, convinced that they had the Cominform’s backing for this change of course.

SCAP responded swiftly to this apparent JCP-led rise in militant anti-Americanism, purging all twenty-four members of the party’s Central Committee from public office in early June. On June 26, the day after the outbreak of all-out war on the Korean peninsula, the occupation banned publication of the JCP newspaper.

Confrontation and Defeat

In the following months, more than 10,000 workers in various industries and government agencies were fired as suspected communists or communist sympathizers. In the summer of 1951, the underground JCP leadership adopted a new militant platform drafted with the assistance of Chinese communist leaders and Joseph Stalin himself. It called for a military struggle to overthrow the US occupation.

During this period in the JCP’s history, its members tossed Molotov cocktails on city streets and entered rural villages with their “mountain village mobilization units” to mobilize for Maoist-style revolution. These reckless tactics further alienated the beleaguered party from the Japanese public. The JCP officially repudiated such methods in the summer of 1955.

Commentators, including the JCP itself, have almost universally denounced and disowned the party’s interlude of military struggle against the US-Japanese war effort during the conflict in Korea as a case of “extreme leftist adventurism” resulting from the Cominform’s imposition of mistaken tactics. Viewed from the perspective of the JCP’s standing in domestic politics, this assessment is certainly accurate.

However, we cannot understand the struggles of this period simply as the product of Cominform orders. JCP activists also had their own motivations for participating in these actions. They included Koreans who wanted to protect their homeland, purged Japanese workers striking back against their domestic oppressors, and radicalized students seeking revolution.

Their actions did not seriously disrupt the war effort or foment a revolutionary crisis. But they did have the effect of disrupting the mirage of a “postwar Japan” set apart from Asia, for which the Korean War was nothing more than a “gift from the gods” — in the words of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru — that rescued the stagnant Japanese economy with the demand it generated for supplies.

Adaptation and Survival

When mass protests broke out in 1960 against the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty, the JCP was still struggling to rebuild from the devastating setbacks of the early 1950s. The leading forces of the protest movement came not from the JCP but rather from the Japan Socialist Party and New Left activists who were claiming the mantle of “sole revolutionary vanguard.” They posed a major challenge to the recently formed LDP, an anti-communist party put together with CIA support. The tumultuous protests ended with the resignation of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke in 1960 and the ratification of the revised treaty.

In 1961, the JCP adopted a new platform that characterized Japan as an advanced capitalist nation that was simultaneously an American client state. It was a realistic assessment that departed from its earlier formulaic insistence, based on inherited revolutionary categories, that Japan was a backward colonized state under the hegemony of US imperialism.

The newly flexible approach based on local realities anticipated the party’s increasing independence from Soviet and Chinese influences in the following years. During the 1970s and ’80s, its vote share in elections for the Diet’s lower house increased to an average of 10 percent, on a par with its previous best-ever vote share in 1949. The independent line the JCP adopted became in turn a key factor enabling its survival into the post–Cold War era.

The Japanese Socialists dissolved their party in 1996, and the social democratic successor group they established now has just two seats in the Diet. The JCP, on the other hand, has carried on under the Communist name. Its strongest electoral performance to date came in 1996, when it took 13 percent of the vote, closely followed by the 11.4 percent score the JCP achieved more recently in 2014. It has an estimated membership in excess of 250,000.

Powerful elements within the ruling LDP, which still enjoys a firm grip on power long after the Cold War ended, have continued to stoke fears about the JCP’s alleged secret plots for violent revolution, but the truth is very different. The JCP may have failed to conduct an honest accounting of its past, and it continues to theorize in revolutionary terms. Yet today’s party of aging activists, which ceased condoning violence after its 1950s experiment and consistently berated New Left groups that inherited its extreme tactics in the following decades, has neither the will nor the capacity to organize for a violent overthrow of the state.

It does, on the other hand, maintain the will and the capacity to speak truth to power. This can be said for very few other organizations in Japan today. In the face of growing inequalities produced by neoliberal policies and shifting debates about Japanese national defense in a changing regional security environment, the party’s future direction, as well as the ability of nonparty members to enter into dialogue and form alliances with the party, will have significant repercussions for both Japan and the wider world.