The Japanese Communist Party has launched its campaign for the upcoming House of Councillors election this month with the customary tactics of speeches in public places and canvassing, but has also created surely the most original videos by any of the parties competing for votes.
Released online on 7 July, the “WE ARE Kyōsantō!” (We are the Communist Party!) video features an animated idol, Koyō no Yōko, who sings a rousing anthem with the message that the JCP is fair to workers. Dressed in a trench coat and sunglasses, the idol character’s name is a play on koyō, or employment, and her music video comes a time when sexual and power harassment in the workplace as well as death by overwork and other employment issues are looming large in Japan.
The catchy lyrics include such gems as “We are Kyōsantō! Seifu o KNOCK OUT! We are Kyōsantō! Seifu o knock out-o! Nihon o UPDATE! We are Kyosantō! Mirai o LET’S START!” (We are the Communist Party! Knock out the government! We are the Communist Party! Update Japan! We are the Communist Party! Let’s start the future!).
The video was preceded by a more subdued debut called “YA!YA!YA! Yatō Kyōtō” (Ya! Ya! Ya! Opposition Parties Fight Together).
These were followed, on 14 July, by “Senkyō de WOW WOW!” (very roughly, “Wow it at the election!”), starring the same idol.
It lies far beyond my expertise or comfort zone to analyse the subcultural terrain these videos are navigating, though the visceral impact is obvious. It is certainly taking various cues from Akihabara subcultures and established anime idols, and is also a curious inverse of something done by AKB48, the archetypal idol group popular with otaku which turned back to (historical) far-left political activism for inspiration for a music video in 2016. More importantly, though, is to avoid dismissing these JCP videos as wacky or incomprehensible, as a total outsider might understandably do. Context is everything.
The JCP has traditionally had a very strong youth wing, which formed a major part of the student movement in the post-war years (leading to many serious clashes with the New Left students). Its youth movement also famously was always very musical. In fact, this was one of the many reasons that the New Left factions lambasted the JCP: that it had not only abandoned the cause of a true revolutionary movement, but was focused only on fun singing and dancing in its activism, when the radicals believed the stakes were so high they justified and even required direct physical conflict with the police. (For a rough comparison, imagine if the main left-wing opposition party in Hong Kong had a youth wing that held peaceful concerts and camping outings while all the other young people were out on the streets clashing with the riot police.)
The legacy of this all-singing, all-dancing JCP remains today in the Akahata Festival that it holds typically every November for several days (though not since 2014), featuring plenty of music, sports and other activities.
While this series of videos may well represent fresh ground for the JCP and its hardworking publicity team, it is far from an entirely new development. The party has had mascots for several years now, causing something of a sensation when the characters appeared with the aim of making communism cute and disseminating a unique kind of kawaii kyōsanshugi. In fact, the idol Koyō no Yōko in the music videos is ostensibly a member of the “Kakusan-bu” (Proliferation Bureau) mascots and has been around ever since they launched in June 2013.
We can also see apparent manga influences in one of its most prominent recent posters, which features a shōjo-like young female figure holding up a flag.
There might be a hint of Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading the People there but it also seems to suggest a reference to Aida Makoto’s 1995 pastiche painting Utsukushii hata (Beautiful Flag), from the War Picture Returns series, and which was used for the cover of Ōtsuka Eiji’s 1996 book “Kanojotachi” no Rengō Sekigun (Her/Their United Red Army), a key text in the development of kyōsanshumi New Left fandom discourse.
The JCP also reacted well to the surge initiated by SEALDs (a group that was, not always accurately, associated with the JCP) by mimicking the students’ superb presentation skills in its own subsequent posters, which echoed both the message of SEALDs and the demographic of fashionable yet “normal” youngsters that group so effectively seemed to embody.
As such, the new videos by the JCP are not a one-off attempt to target a small coterie of netizens or an otaku subculture, but part of a general trend by the JCP and others to speak to millennials.
Faced with an ageing population and declining voter turnout rate, Japan took a bold step and enfranchised 18- and 19-year-olds in the summer of 2016. Unlike other nations, where millennials have mustered around visionary left-wing figures such as Sanders or Corbyn, the novice voters are often choosing to vote LDP thus far, possibly because they do not know enough about the other parties, which are sometimes quite new themselves. This is not to say that the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan or JCP do not attract any interest among voters in their late teens or twenties — far from it — but it also suggests that the impact of heavily, sometimes breathlessly discussed youth movements like SEALDs, Public for Future and Aequitas may be more limited when it comes to elections.
The JCP is also not the only political party looking to pick up new votes with new tactics. Even the dusty Liberal Democratic Party is active in this regard, recently trying a fashion magazine and social media tie-up that backfired and stoked controversy. For the current election campaign, the LDP also produced a manga booklet and hired a famous manga artist to make a poster. The CDP is focussing on social media, a choice necessitated by its modest war chest but which also helps it reach millennials quickly. Another of JCP’s approaches for this campaign has included using hip hop music at an event, while another minor party has resorted to cosplay.
For the JCP, its tactics are not just about this one election but rather consolidating its position in the long term as the party of the have-nots. In additional to traditional Japanese left-wing issues like protecting Article 9 and the Constitution as well as the anti-war and anti-base movement, the JCP is competing with the relatively young CDP to be the voice of the precariat and under-represented. For some time now, the JCP has presented itself as the party of the working poor, of minorities, of gender equality, of the young — and of optimism. This is especially emphasised by the current campaign, whose main election motto is “Hope for tomorrow” and the lyrics to the music videos also make very plain.
Though its parliamentary presence is modest, the JCP has a strong grassroots base and decent representation in local politics. Like all the parties, it is vital to attract a new generation of support in order to remain a viable political force, acutely so in the JCP’s case because it relies on subscriptions to the Akahata (Red Flag) newspaper as a primarily source of income. Purchasing a print newspaper, yet alone subscribing to one, is a foreign concept for probably most millennials.
Based on the policies it presents first and foremost to the public, the JCP no longer seems a communist party but more like a labour party. Indeed, the shifts we can denote in its presentation style are not merely cosmetic changes but reflect a gradual softening of ideology whose trajectory arguably traces back to the Sixth Japanese Communist Party Congress in July 1955 and the formal, final renunciation of revolution through armed struggle. The most significant recent directional adjustment affects the JCP’s long-held opposition to the Imperial House, even to the extent of agreeing to attend the opening session of parliament when the reigning emperor always gives a speech from a position higher than the lawmakers present in the chamber.
There is an even older precedent to this, though. In the late 1940s, the JCP famously launched a campaign to make itself seem more electable and moderate: its new brand of leftism, it said, was aisareru kyōsantō, a “loveable communist party”. Internal machinations and manoeuvres over the years notwithstanding, these mascots and videos are perhaps only the latest manifestations of an outwardly adaptable and savvy party.