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HAMMER (AND SICKLE) TIME FOR JAPAN?

By C. B. Liddell

TOKYO, 3 AUGUST 2009 - The high-point of Communism as an ideology was the early 1930s, before the worst excesses of Stalinism. At this time not only did Communism control the vast territory of the Soviet Union, but powerful Communist movements could be found in many of the major industrial states, sometimes provoking its antithesis in Fascism. Even in countries like Britain and America, where mass support was lacking, Communism held powerful sway among intellectuals and some members of the elite, providing a ready source of spies in later years. The fact that Capitalism was going through a major economic crisis at this time was hardly coincidental.

Now, with the world facing another significant period of economic distress, what chance is there for a resurgence of Communism? In most developed countries, the answer is none at all. State-sponsored buy outs and economic stimulation packages designed to get consumerist capitalism up and running again hardly qualify. But in one vast and extremely important segment of the world, namely East Asia, Communism is still very much alive, at least in name. China and North Korea both claim to be Communist regimes, although with its policies of Sino-centric national aggrandizement, encouragement of big business, and growing social inequality, China increasingly looks more like a traditional Fascist state, while with its brutality, Fuhrer worship, and concentration camps, North Korea strikes a remarkably similar chord to Nazi Germany.

Against such a background, the other major East Asian country, Japan, surprisingly comes closest to the idealized ethos of Communism, a movement supposedly egalitarian and humanitarian in nature, but which, in practice, has been behind some of the worst atrocities in history. While technically a capitalist country, where the very name "Communist" remains anathema, postwar Japan has consistently stressed economic planning, full employment, social cohesion, and avoiding extremes of wealth and poverty, at least until recently. In addition to this, it has also maintained the largest Communist party in the developed World with over 400,000 members and about 7% of the vote in elections. Moves towards a more liberalized economy by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since the 1990s combined with the pressures of the economic downturn now mean that Japanese Communist Party (JCP) is set to do well in the forthcoming general election to be held this month. But to Westerners with preconceptions of what a Communist party should be like, the JCP may offer a few surprises, as this interview with the party leader Kazuo Shii reveals.


Kazuo Shii

In recent months, Japan has been badly hit by the credit crunch and recession. What is the party's attitude to the current economic crisis? What are the solutions?

In the face of the present financial crisis and the economic downturn, the JCP has made urgent economic proposals. There are three pillars to our proposals. The first pillar is that we are seeing casino capitalism, and ordinary people should be protected from the negative effects of this. In Japan, the cost of this crisis is being paid by the small and medium-sized enterprises, and also the workers are suffering as employment is being destroyed. The second pillar of our position is that we have to change the character of the Japanese economy from one that is dependent on foreign demand to one that is based on internal domestic demand. In order to do this we are calling for a shift of the economic focus away from one that is big-business-oriented to one that is people-oriented. In order to realize this aspiration, we need to do three things: ensure the stability of employment, improve social welfare, and improve the agricultural sector. The third pillar is that the financial crisis we are currently witnessing, which started in the United States, has been the result of excessive deregulation. This started in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s. One of the examples was the repeal of the Glass Steagall Law. Speculative money has expanded and lots of very strange derivatives have been prevalent. So in order to overcome this situation we have to move towards stronger regulation of the financial market.

From what you've just said, it sounds like the main problem is the global nature of the economy. You emphasized that instead of Japan being an exporting country supplying America, Japanese companies should supply domestic demand more. Also you've pointed out the problems that arise from this kind of global capitalism. With Subprime, one problem was that bad debt could easily be repackaged and sold around the World. So, would it be true to say that the approach of the JCP is towards a kind of localism versus globalism, with the emphasis on local production and local consumption, rather than global exports and the kind of global market where some countries, like America act as consumer nations, while others like Japan fulfil the role of producer nation?

We don't see globalization and localization in terms of an opposition or confrontation. As regards globalization, it is inevitable in the capitalist system. For example, Marx wrote in the 19th century, in the Communist Manifesto that the economy would be globalized. So we don't endorse anti-globalization. What we are calling for is democratic or orderly globalization. This means that the economic sovereignty of each nation should be respected and that equal and mutually beneficial relations should be maintained.

So, what you're saying is that globalization has been too powerful and there has been nothing to balance it, so we need more local economic sovereignty to balance globalism.

Yes, like that. The economic sovereignty of each country means that they will improve or strengthen domestic demand, and by this, we will be able to make people's livelihoods better than before. This would be the first priority. Then we would hope to forge good international trading relationships. The worst point of the Japanese economy so far is that Japan has been so much dependent on foreign demand and exports. For the last several years, the big companies that have depended on exports have been making vast profits. But, on the other hand, ordinary Japanese people have seen poverty spreading. This is the upside-down situation in Japan. This should be overturned.

My very broad impression of the global economic situation is that America creates all this money or debt, which is then exported to countries like Japan, while in Japan, corporations produce all these manufactured goods which are then exported. To a certain degree, both are unnecessary. People in the West don't really need more and more gadgets, while the dollars to pay for them are inherently worthless because America offers few products or services in return.

America has a lot of debts and these have been exported to other countries. For example, Japan bought a lot of national dollar bonds. These should be returned to the United States. In order to support this system, Japan's interest rate has always been very low, almost zero, which is unbelievable in the capitalist system - a zero interest rate! This is in order to support the United States, and this shows how subservient Japan is to the United States economically. This should be corrected.

In recent years, how has the party been doing in membership terms? I heard that recently quite a lot of young people have been joining the party, and since the economic crisis, there must be a lot of renewed interest in the party.

In recent months, we have been seeing a rise in membership of around one thousand new members. We now have over 400,000 members. I think, roughly speaking, every strata of society and every age group is represented in the party. But it is true that the younger generation - teens, twenties, and thirties - has been increasing its ratio among our membership. The biggest reason for this is because there is a very bad employment situation. Under the neo-liberal economic policy in Japan, 37% of workers are now non-regular workers. This figure is for all the workers, but for young people, about 50% are in this unstable employment situation. Temporary agency workers are also increasing.

When you have the kind of economic hardship that is becoming common in Japan, usually it expresses itself culturally before it expresses itself politically, with the political reaction coming after some sort of cultural reaction. Recently the 1929 novel Kanikosen (The Crab Factory Ship) by the communist writer Takiji Kobayashi, which describes the extremely harsh conditions on factory ships in the Sea of Okhotsk, has become a surprise hit, selling over 500,000 copies plus 200,000 in a comic book version. Are there any other cultural signs of the changing mood of the country?

For my own part, I was impressed that one of the big commercial TV stations asked me to appear on one of their programs to choose some words or phrases from Marx's Das Kapital to be shown through flip boards. I chose, "After me the deluge," the slogan of capital. In order to get the profits, they don't care at all what will happen afterwards. My second choice was prompted by the subprime crisis: "Excessive credit gives rise to excessive speculation." My third choice was Engel's words that nature will be revenged on people through environmental destruction. This was the first time in Japanese history that a commercial television station showed such phrases from Marx and Engels.

Soon there will be a general election, and, of course, the governing LDP is quite unpopular. Just after they changed their leader, the economic crisis came along, so they lost the advantage of holding an election in the so-called "honeymoon period." If the LDP is defeated in the next election by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), what do you expect will happen?

Whether the DPJ will replace the LDP in government or not no one can say exactly, but what we can say is that the LDP, politically speaking or organizationally speaking, is at the last stage of the its lifespan.

Not only do the LDP and the DPJ have a lot in common, but many of the members have a shared political history. For example Ichiro Ozawa used to be very important in the LDP. Are these parties basically offering voters a false choice?

(Note: Ichiro Ozawa was party leader of the DPJ at the time of the interview. He resigned in May this year following a fund-raising scandal and has been replaced by Yukio Hatoyama. Like Ozawa, Hatoyama was originally a member of the LDP.)

When I was first elected to the secretariat of the JCP, Ozawa was Secretary General of the LDP, so it seems to me that there is no difference between the LDP and the DPJ. A public opinion poll recently showed a very interesting result. The question was who do you think would be better as a Prime Minister, Taro Aso or Ichiro Ozawa? With just these two choices, Ozawa was slightly more popular, although both of them had almost the same level of support. However, more than 50% of the respondents said that neither of them was appropriate. The reason the JCP is appealing to Japanese voters these days is because the voters are no longer satisfied with just changing the faces in politics. They feel that it is also necessary to change the contents of government as well. This means changing the system that makes Japanese politics subservient to the United States, and which gives priority to big business over the needs of ordinary people. This kind of broad perspective is only being proposed by the JCP. This is the change that we are calling for. While I don't expect the JCP to take power, people are clearly deeply disillusioned by both the LDP and DPJ.

This similarity between the two main parties is a problem everywhere. In America the Democrats and Republicans, once in government, act in remarkably similar ways and share many of the same agendas. In Britain, too, the Conservative and Labour parties are not so different.

I think we have come to a period in which the world capitalist system is now seeing its own limitations. I'm always saying there are three points of limitation. First, they cannot resolve the poverty problem. Second, they cannot solve the problem of speculative activity and its results. Third, the capitalist system cannot solve problems of international relations. So, looked at in the perspective of the 21st century, the capitalist system is not capable of leading us towards a future society. The future society will be based on the socialist system. This will be inevitable.

Japan has a very serious demographic problem. Not enough children are being born and the number of old people is disproportionate, so there's big pressure in some quarters to increase immigration to Japan for economic reasons. Recently, I heard there was an agreement between Japan and Indonesia to facilitate bringing nursing staff from Indonesia to help take care of Japanese senior citizens.

This problem of not enough children is one of the effects of the present political and economic system. This should be solved by taking into account every aspect of the problem - for example, the employment situation and the welfare problem. Employment and welfare conditions should be changed so as to induce an increase in the birth rate of the Japanese people.

C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on culture for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He last wrote on Soccer: The High Price of Being a Fan for Culturekiosque.com.

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