The Japanese Left Has a Complex and Turbulent History

During the 1960s, the Japanese Communist Party faced a strong challenge from Japan’s New Left groups amid a wave of student radicalization. While the Communists’ staying power proved greater, neither old nor new lefts have succeeded in transforming Japan.


Japanese riot police clashed with militant leftist students of the Zengakuren movement outside Tokyo, Japan, in January 1967. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) turns one hundred this year, which is inevitably sparking much discussion about its history. The meeting that launched the first organized force for Japanese communism took place a century ago today on July 15, 1922.

Amid the welter of backslapping about its resilience and analysis of its shifts in policy and character, it is perhaps easy to forget that, for a time, the party seemed to many on the Left in Japan like a has-been — or even an archenemy. During the 1960s, the myriad elements of the Japanese New Left appeared to be on the verge of seizing the ascendancy from the JCP, which they regarded as a repellent and counterrevolutionary force.

In a wide-ranging 1994 survey of former student activists who took part in the campus protests of the Long ’60s, a man who attended Toyo University and participated in the social movements of the time listed the JCP leaders as the politicians he now “most hated.” Notably, he ranked them ahead of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the conservative party that has ruled Japan continuously since 1955 with the exception of two brief periods. Where did such vehemence come from, and why has it lingered for so long?


The JCP and the Origins of the New Left

The 1950s was a peculiar decade for the JCP. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the US occupation had released its leaders from prison and legalized the party. Then, however, as the postwar communist threat in East Asia quickly escalated, the JCP again found itself the victim of a purge, this time by the occupation authorities.

For a while, it turned to what it later deemed “extreme leftist adventurism,” sending student soldiers into rural villages to build a guerrilla army and prepare for a violent revolution. This short interlude ended in abject failure. Following the JCP’s collapse at the 1952 election, when it lost all its seats in the National Diet, Japan’s parliament, the party leadership firmly repudiated such paramilitary tactics. In July 1955, the JCP renounced armed struggle at the Sixth Party Congress.

The party chose the nonviolent, parliamentary path to revolution, but this angered more radical younger members, who now saw it as a weak, flip-flopping organization. The JCP’s perceived complicity in cooperating with the occupation authorities over the abandonment of a general strike in 1947 compounded such perceptions.

It was not impossible at the time to conceive of the 1947 strike as the stepping-stone to revolution. Workers up and down the country were then engaged in union activism. Not long afterward, the JCP won 3 million votes — 10 percent of the total — in the 1949 general election. Yet instead of building on this groundswell, the JCP had pulled back.

For the radical wing of the party, the decisions taken at the 1955 congress were another example of such timidity. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 then caused the JCP, like other major Communist parties around the world, to suffer a further loss of legitimacy in the eyes of young leftists.


A Divided Left

The first elements of the New Left now began to emerge. The Revolutionary Communist League (Kakkyodo) developed in 1957 out of the earlier Japanese Trotskyist League, while activists expelled from the JCP formed the Communist League, also known as the Bund, in 1958. The JCP had controlled the student self-governing councils within the national umbrella organization Zengakuren from the time of its foundation in 1948. The Bund now began to challenge this dominant position.

The division was evident during the protests against the renewal of the Japan–United States security treaty (Anpo) in 1959–60. Although they were united in a common cause, the mobilization of student groups under the Zengakuren umbrella split firmly along pro-JCP and anti-JCP lines. Following the Anpo campaign, which ended with the controversial new treaty passing, both the Bund and the Revolutionary Communist League fragmented. Zengakuren accordingly continued to splinter.

The JCP, on the other hand, once again revealed an astute ability to shore up its position and recover from defeat. The party’s Democratic Youth League of Japan (Minsei Domei) reformed its own version of Zengakuren during the first half of the 1960s to organize its affiliated groups at campuses nationwide. Despite the failure of Anpo and other causes in the early and mid-1960s, such as the Miike coal mine strike and the protests against the treaty between Japan and South Korea, the Democratic Youth League remained a strong, unified force within the student movement.

The League’s roots went back to the 1920s, like those of the JCP itself, and it enjoyed a large uptick in membership during the late 1950s and early 1960s, in part because the overall student population was rising. Estimates in 1969 put the number of active League members at 12,000, with a total membership of 460,000 at more than 300 student councils. It also had thousands of affiliated high school students.

The New Left factions, though proliferating at a dramatic rate, also had high memberships due to the way the student councils worked: students at a particular university were automatically enrolled in the groups, which were then arbitrarily aligned wholesale with a particular faction. In the post-Anpo years, activists who had never been JCP or Democratic Youth League members also filled the ranks of the New Left groups. This further cemented the divide as the decade wore on.


Clash of Perspectives

What was the nature of this divide in concrete terms? The Old Left in the form of the JCP and the Japan Socialist Party focused on parliamentary elections as part of a gradual path toward a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The JCP wanted to remove the influence of US imperialism from Japan, but it set out to do so nonviolently through peaceful mass protest, labor strikes (although the Socialist Party enjoyed stronger support from the unions than the JCP), grassroots activism, and a student movement. The JCP’s three core aims were remarkably conservative, given the zeitgeist of the 1960s: the genuine independence of Japan, pacifism in world affairs, and democracy.

The JCP believed that Japan was not yet capitalist enough for revolution. This harked back to a prewar debate that gripped Marxists about the nature of Japanese society and the Japanese state. The JCP stuck to the official line that had emerged at that time, according to which Japan was still dealing with its feudal remnants: only after it had progressed beyond this stage of development would it be ready for socialism.

The party really did seem like the “old” left: it felt stuck in the past, especially under the long leadership from 1958 to 1978 of Kenji Miyamoto, a JCP member since the 1930s who deradicalized the party. While its leftist enemies perceived the JCP as a Stalinist organization, it was actually isolated from both the Soviet Union and China by the late 1960s, turning it into a very domestic-facing movement.

The New Left, on the other hand, was student-led instead of party-led and advocated a very different approach to revolution. According to this perspective, Japanese modernization since the Meiji Restoration of the late nineteenth century meant that the country had already reached the stage of bourgeois capitalism: now was the time for mass struggle toward a proletarian revolution led by a vanguard.

If the JCP was inward-looking, the New Left turned its gaze outward. It took inspiration from the next generation of Japanese thinkers like Takaaki Yoshimoto and looked overseas for new allies such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or the Black Panthers. Certain groups invited foreign activists to Japan or even sent members abroad to help kick-start the revolution through militant actions. The New Left firmly believed that the revolution was global.

While the JCP and Democratic Youth League followed a nonviolent approach, the New Left factions carried staves to protests and threw stones at police. As the Long ’60s wore on, this escalated into fierce street battles (among the New Left groups themselves as well as with the state) and eventually the use of bombs.


Confrontation

The main struggles during the late 1960s and early 1970s were university campus strikes, campaigns against the next renewal of the security treaty, antiwar protests (since the US bases in Japan were an integral logistical part of the war in Vietnam), and the demand for the restoration of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. The campus strikes, in particular, became one of the most iconic aspects of the Long ’60s in Japan. Although these strikes came to symbolize the conflict between the state and the youth, the campuses were also battlegrounds for clashes among various student factions.

The Democratic Youth League formally remained committed to nonviolence, which meant it was sometimes successful in attracting students who were unaffiliated with the New Left factions and fatigued by monthslong strikes and infighting. The New Left factions were willing to use violence and refused to back down from their positions, while the League was more conciliatory and open to negotiating with university administrations. As a result, the New Left militants viewed them as a counterrevolutionary presence on the campus.

Clashes were inevitable. They happened quietly at first in 1968, with the JCP keen to keep the violence secret, but students from either camp were eventually fighting in the open. Ostensibly at least, the League maintained its nonviolent stance, employing a tactic of wait-and-see, then fighting back when the New Left groups attacked them on campuses. The League subsequently claimed in the JCP newspaper that it acted in “self-defense” against “Trotskyists.” This was a war of words as much as a physical conflict.

The JCP certainly did not want to risk looking like a dangerous organization again. Off campus, it was a significant force in mobilizing demonstrators in the late 1960s, yet it chose to organize peaceful rallies and events like the Akahata Festival that mixed political speeches with music and singing, while the New Left was engaging in sometimes deadly street battles with the police in Tokyo and other parts of Japan.

This contrast between different styles of protest encapsulated the cultural divide. The New Left believed it was “serious,” and dismissed the JCP and the League for their emphasis on “frivolous” dancing and songs over militancy.


After the Long ’60s

In the 1970s, the JCP clamped down on the use of violence by its members, such as it was, and purged many of the leaders in its mass organizations. Its pursuit of a strategy that it called “popular parliamentarianism” seemed to pay off. The JCP did well in the 1972 general election, taking 10.5 percent of the vote. This made it the second-largest opposition party in the Diet, just behind the Socialists.

Kenji Miyamoto’s approach appeared to be working, while support for the New Left among students collapsed as the factions descended into a period of violent infighting whose body count shocked the nation. The critic Akira Asada once characterized the New Left as “heroic-romantic” and male chauvinist. Asada blamed those character traits for the way in which this political tendency crashed and burned so quickly, leaving no substantial legacy to continue into the 1970s and beyond. The JCP, though far less glamorous and “romantic,” provided to be a survivor.

As it entered its sixth decade, the JCP had come a long way from the oppressed, clandestine prewar years or the highs and lows of the immediate postwar phase. It had hundreds of thousands of members and a secure source of funding from sales of its newspaper. The party had also seemingly beaten the threat of the New Left.

However, neither the JCP’s parliamentary presence nor the bedrock of its mass membership could prevent neoliberal Japanese governments from dissolving the Old Left’s backbone, the labor movement. This occurred most notably through the privatization of Japan’s railways and the attendant breaking up of their unions in the 1980s.


Legacies

Today, while the other elements of the Old Left like the Socialist Party and major labor unions are either defunct or mere shadows of their former selves, the JCP is still one of the most visible elements of parliamentary politics in Japan and enjoys particular support at local government levels. A walk through a local neighborhood in Tokyo invariably means passing a JCP poster or two on the wall of a member’s house or shop.

The JCP now presents itself as a party of petty-bourgeois egalitarianism that stands for the “little people,” not big business. It aims to function as the voice of the working poor and those left behind in Japan’s neoliberal era through advocating policies such as the abolition of consumption tax. To broaden its appeal, the party has become increasingly moderate in its stance toward the emperor system and the legality of the Self-Defense Forces — both of which are keystone issues for the Left in Japan — while remaining committed to pacifism and the preservation of the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9, which renounces war as a tool of state policy.

The legacy of the New Left is much less visible. The movement did not evolve into an institutionalized force with any real political influence in society today. Its remnants still exist and engage in activism and publishing, but the newspapers and pamphlets produced by the handful of surviving groups do not circulate through mainstream channels, and ever-dwindling numbers of mostly older radicals attend their rallies. Those newspapers will often single out the JCP for harsh criticism. While they no longer pursue militant tactics, the underlying ideologies of the New Left groups have changed little, in contrast to the more plastic JCP.

And yet a bitter irony persists: in spite of all the efforts made by the JCP to differentiate itself from the New Left, the state still treats the party in a similar fashion. In the annual Japanese police white paper, the JCP always receives its own section in the security chapter (making it unique among major parliamentary parties), as do the New Left groups (along with ultranationalist groups and religious cults). The Japanese state still keeps the JCP under surveillance and considers it a threat, though not as intensely as it does the remnants of the New Left.

The police are, of course, monitoring the political scene for signs of revolution, but such prospects seem unlikely due to a simple matter of demographics. Movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter may have galvanized young people internationally, yet neither the New Left nor the JCP has been able to attract younger activists in significant quantities, although the JCP has made an appeal to this audience part of its central messaging, and the Democratic Youth League is still active.

Surveys indicate that most young Japanese voters currently support the LDP, which came first yet again in last October’s Lower House election and the Upper House poll held last week, while the JCP took received around 7 percent of the vote on both occasions. Turnout, though, remains consistently low: too few people feel inspired enough to go to the voting booths.

Even when certain issues in recent years have mobilized large numbers of people, young and old, onto the streets to protest, this has not translated into a change of government. In this regard, whatever may be said about their historical differences and mutual antipathy, both Old and New Lefts have failed in their ambitions to transform Japan.