TOKYO — The Japan Communist Party is the oldest political party in the country. It’s the largest nonruling Communist party in the world. It’s harshly critical of China. And the Japanese authorities list it, along with ISIS and North Korea, as a threat to national security.
To many in Japan, that comparison seems exaggerated. The party, which long ago abandoned Marx and Lenin and never really had time for Stalin or Mao, is about as radical as a beige cardigan: antiwar, pro-democracy, pro-economic equality.
But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a primary target of Japan’s dominant political force, the Liberal Democratic Party, ahead of parliamentary elections on Sunday that will help set the country’s path out of the pandemic.
Though clocking in at only 3 percent support in the polls, the Communists have become a handy boogeyman after teaming up with Japan’s leading opposition parties for the first time in an effort to dethrone the L.D.P. The Communists agreed to withdraw their candidates from several districts to avoid splitting the liberal vote.
C.I.A. — carried out heavy-handed crackdowns on the group, which briefly flirted with political violence and became a rallying point for anti-American student protests.
Despite its name, the J.C.P. has largely abandoned its roots in favor of its own homegrown ideology. It broke with the Soviet Union and China in the 1960s and has recently become one of Beijing’s most vocal Japanese critics, denouncing its neighbor for following the path of “hegemony” and violating human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. When the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, the J.C.P. was the only major Japanese party not to send congratulations.
Still, Japan’s National Police Agency has continued to treat the group as a menace. In its annual report on threats to the nation, it lumps the J.C.P. in with the Islamic State, North Korea and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that killed 13 and injured thousands during a 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
The Japan Communists, the police note, are rapidly aging, losing their financial resources — mostly generated by subscriptions to their newspaper, Akahata, or Red Flag — and are having difficulty attracting new members.
The agency is not clear about what actual threat the group poses. It does note that the Communists were planning to join other opposition parties to challenge the L.D.P., and that they had “added ‘gender equality’ and ‘a nuclear-power-free Japan’” to their platform. (The J.C.P. runs more female candidates than nearly any other Japanese party.)
Both of those initiatives are opposed to some extent by the Liberal Democrats — who, for example, have rejected legislation to allow women to keep their last names after marriage — even though they are popular with the general public.
But those are not among the top issues for voters in the coming election. Their priorities are clear: keeping the coronavirus in check and putting the pandemic-ravaged economy back on track. Neither of these are necessarily winning issues for the L.D.P., which, though unlikely to lose, faces a strong risk of emerging from the election seriously weakened.
Japan is reporting just a few hundred Covid-19 cases each day, and vaccination numbers have surpassed those of most other countries, despite a slow start. Nevertheless, there is a sense that the governing party mismanaged the crisis, fumbling the national vaccine rollout and delaying the country’s recovery. Stories of coronavirus patients dying at home despite ample supplies of hospital beds have further hardened public opinion.
Current economic policies, which have failed to lift the country out of stagnation, are also unpopular — so much so that Fumio Kishida, who became prime minister this month after winning an L.D.P. leadership election, ran against them. Mr. Kishida promised that he would confront growing inequality through a (very socialist-sounding) program of wealth redistribution.
He has since walked back those promises and looks set to continue his predecessors’ policies largely unchanged.
The threat that the Japan Communist Party poses to the L.D.P. may come not from its size — the Communists have never gained more than 13 percent of the vote in a lower house election — but from its members’ dedication. The J.C.P., which has a highly organized base, could play a big role in drawing votes to the opposition, said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University.
“It’s an organization that has the power to gather ballots” he said.
In focusing attention on the Japan Communists, the L.D.P. and its governing partner, Komeito, are betting that voters’ distaste for big “C” communism and fear of a rising China will drive them away from the opposition coalition, said Taku Sugawara, an independent political scientist.
“Until recently, as far as the L.D.P. was concerned, the Communists were just a group that got in the way of the other opposition parties,” he said. “But now that they’re clearly a threat, they’ve become a prominent target of criticism.”
Although there is widespread consensus in Japan that Beijing’s growing power poses a threat to regional stability, the L.D.P. and J.C.P. are split over how to deal with it.
The Liberal Democrats have called for doubling military spending, increasing defense cooperation with the United States, and changing Japan’s pacifist constitution to give it, among other things, the ability to carry out first strikes against adversaries that threaten national security.
The Japan Communists, however, prefer a diplomatic approach and are strongly opposed to the substantial American military presence in Japan, a position that makes it an outlier among Japanese political parties.
During a recent rally in front of the bustling Shinjuku station in central Tokyo, candidates for Komeito warned a small group of potential voters that the differing views of the J.C.P. and its political partners on national defense would make it impossible for them to govern competently.
(The hawkish L.D.P. and its dovish coalition partner have themselves long been at odds over whether to increase military spending or alter Japan’s constitution to remove its prohibition against waging war. And Komeito is notorious for its reluctance to criticize Beijing.)
The Japan Communists have said that their differences with other opposition parties would have no bearing on a new government. The Communists say they won’t seek any role if the opposition topples the L.D.P.
But it’s hard to say what would actually happen if the opposition somehow won power, Mr. Iwai, the political science professor, said.
None of the coalition members “actually think they’re going to win,” he said. So when it comes to discussions of what’s next, “No one’s thought that far.”
TOKYO — With the world’s oldest population, rapidly declining births, gargantuan public debt and increasingly damaging natural disasters fueled by climate change, Japan faces deep-rooted challenges that the longstanding governing party has failed to tackle.
Yet in choosing a new prime minister on Wednesday, the Liberal Democratic Party elected the candidate least likely to offer bold solutions.
The party’s elite power brokers chose Fumio Kishida, 64, a stalwart moderate, in a runoff election for the leadership, seeming to disregard the public’s preference for a maverick challenger. In doing so, they anointed a politician with little to distinguish him from the unpopular departing leader, Yoshihide Suga, or his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Elders in the party, which has had a near monopoly on power in the decades since World War II, made their choice confident that, with a weak political opposition and low voter turnout, they would face little chance of losing a general election later this year. So, largely insulated from voter pressure, they opted for a predictable former foreign minister who has learned to control any impulse to stray from the mainstream party platform.
slowly emerges from six months of pandemic restrictions that have battered the economy.
Taro Kono, an outspoken nonconformist whose common touch has made him popular with the public and with rank-and-file party members. Mr. Kishida prevailed in the second round of voting, in which ballots cast by members of Parliament held greater weight than ballots cast by other party members.
He will become prime minister when Parliament holds a special session next week, and will then lead the party into the general election, which must be held by November.
In his victory speech on Wednesday, Mr. Kishida acknowledged the challenges he faces. “We have mountains of important issues that lie ahead in Japan’s future,” he said.
They loom both at home and abroad. Mr. Kishida faces mounting tensions in the region as China has grown increasingly aggressive and North Korea has started testing ballistic missiles again. Taiwan is seeking membership in a multilateral trade pact that Japan helped negotiate, and Mr. Kishida may have to help finesse a decision on how to accept the self-governed island into the group without angering China.
As a former foreign minister, Mr. Kishida may have an easier time managing his international portfolio. Most analysts expect that he will maintain a strong relationship with the United States and continue to build on alliances with Australia and India to create a bulwark against China.
But on the domestic front, he is mostly offering a continuation of Mr. Abe’s economic policies, which have failed to cure the country’s stagnation. Income inequality is rising as fewer workers benefit from Japan’s vaunted system of lifetime employment — a reality reflected in Mr. Kishida’s campaign promise of a “new capitalism” that encourages companies to share more profits with middle-class workers.
close to 60 percent of the public is now inoculated. But Mr. Kishida has offered few concrete policies to address other issues like aging, population decline or climate change.
In a magazine questionnaire, he said that he needed “scientific verification” that human activities were causing global warming, saying, “I think that’s the case to some extent.”
Given the enduring power of the right flank of the Liberal Democratic Party, despite its minority standing in the party, Mr. Kishida closed what daylight he had with these power brokers during the campaign.
He had previously gained a reputation as being more dovish than the influential right wing led by Mr. Abe, but during the leadership race, he expressed a hawkish stance toward China. As a parliamentary representative from Hiroshima, Mr. Kishida has opposed nuclear weapons, but he has made clear his support for restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants, which have been idled since the triple meltdown in Fukushima 10 years ago.
And he toned down his support for overhauling a law requiring married couples to share a surname for legal purposes and declared that he would not endorse same-sex marriage, going against public sentiment but hewing to the views of the party’s conservative elite.
“I think Kishida knows how he won, and it was not by appealing to the general public, it was not by running as a liberal, but courting support to his right,” said Tobias Harris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “So what that’s going to mean for the composition of his cabinet and his priorities, and what his party’s platform ends up looking like, means he could end up being pulled in a few different directions.”
resigned last fall because of ill health. He had led the party for eight consecutive years, a remarkable stint given Japan’s history of revolving-door prime ministers. When he stepped down, the party chose Mr. Suga, who had served as Mr. Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, to extend his boss’s legacy.
Sanae Takaichi — a hard-line conservative who was seeking to become Japan’s first female prime minister — to revitalize his base in the party’s far right, analysts and other lawmakers said he helped steer support to Mr. Kishida in the runoff.
As a result, Mr. Kishida may end up beholden to his predecessor.
“Kishida cannot go against what Abe wants,” said Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who challenged Mr. Abe for the party leadership twice and withdrew from running in the leadership election this month to support Mr. Kono.
“I am not sure I would use the word ‘puppet,’ but maybe he is a puppet?” Mr. Ishiba added. “What is clear is he depends on Abe’s influence.”
During the campaign for the party leadership, Mr. Kishida appeared to acknowledge some dissatisfaction with the Abe era with his talk of a “new capitalism.” In doing so, he followed a familiar template within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been adept at adopting policies first introduced by the opposition in order to keep voters assuaged.
“That’s one of the reasons why they have maintained such longevity as a party,” said Saori N. Katada, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “Kishida is definitely taking that card and running with it.”
Makiko Inoue, Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.