One can find signs of the anticipated realignment.
On the right, Hiranuma Takeo, who before Mr. Abe’s crackup looked like he was prepared to return to the LDP, recently suggested the creation of a new study group devoted to “a rebirth of conservatism based on Japan’s tradition and culture” that could, according to Sankei, hint at the creation of a new conservative party. His hope, it seems, is to draw conservatives from both the LDP and the DPJ, who he expects might be dissatisfied with the leadership of their respective parties.
I can’t see this succeeding, given that some of the LDP’s conservatives are already planning for Mr. Fukuda’s departure and working to ensure that Mr. Aso will not fail in his bid to succeed him. Meanwhile, whatever their dissatisfaction with Mr. Ozawa’s leadership, I suspect that the centrifugal forces of a major political party (important jobs, respect, the prospects for unseating Ozawa and seizing control for themselves) will easily overwhelm the appeal of a speculative Hiranuma new party.
More intriguing, however, are signs of a new dynamism on the part of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). Akahata (Red Flag), the JCP daily, has been dutifully reporting on the travels of JCP chairman Shii Kazuo throughout Japan. With the DPJ and the LDP looking like the old factions, the JCP may benefit by being the one party that has a genuinely unique critique of the government. In a speech in Chiba last week, for example, Mr. Shii criticized LDP rule for its large corporation-centered approach, its acting as America’s yes-man, and its efforts to legitimize Japan’s imperial past. He also called for the gradual disarmament of Japan and the dissolution of the JSDF. In a recent speech in Nagasaki, he elaborated on the party’s opposition to structural reform and the need to defend vulnerable members of Japanese society, and insisted that unlike the DPJ, the JCP’s confrontational stance is without contradiction.
Given social insecurities, given the DPJ’s own money problems and ambiguous policy positions, given discontent with politics as usual, I think there may be room for the JCP to become an important small party — to use a German analogy, if Komeito plays the role of the Free Democrats to the LDP’s Christian Democrats, then the JCP could be the Greens to the DPJ’s Social Democrats. The JCP is already giving signs of bowing to political reality; while Chairman Shii insists that the party remains dedicated to achieving a majority of its own, the party’s new election strategy recognizes the difficulty of winning in single-seat districts and so the JCP will concentrate on the regional PR blocs in the next Lower House election (as suggested by Ichida Tadayoshi, JCP secretary-general). Sooner or later, however, the Communists will have to compromise their principles if they are to play a significant role in the political system as a potential coalition partner for the DPJ.
Not least, the party will have to change its name. Whatever the history, the word “communist” is an albatross around the party’s neck, undermining what could otherwise be a policy platform that has some appeal to Japanese voters. In his Chiba speech, Mr. Shii spoke of the “romance” of the party’s name, which Mr. Ichida suggested is related to the party’s history as the only party that both opposed imperialism before the war and the alliance with the US afterwards. Mr. Ichida also spoke of the party’s reluctance to become a “normal” political party scrambling for cash and receiving subsidies from the state. An admirable idealism, perhaps, but a guarantee of remaining effectively useless. The Japanese “allergy” to communism remains, and the party would be wise to stop limiting its own public support.
But the changing political environment should be viewed by its leadership as yet another opportunity to modernize their party. The MSDF refueling debate has opened up questions about the US-Japan alliance, the pensions scandal has raised the fears of millions of citizens, and corruption scandal after corruption scandal have undermined whatever confidence voters have in the political system. As a party that has been consistently opposed to Japan as it is, the JCP would be foolish not to try to take advantage of new political circumstances and carve out a niche for itself.
Of course, the Communists have missed opportunities in the past, and it would not surprise me if they were to miss this opportunity too. But I am intrigued by the prospect of their potentially adding another wrinkle to the political realignment of Japan.