High school student Dai Ozaki looks more grunge than red. He's wearing a faded flannel shirt and blue jeans, and his hair is a little on the shaggy side. "I try not to identify myself as a member of the Communist Party," he says. "I tend to be cautious."
"Some people," he explains, "still feel the party is awful."
If polls and some recent election results are any indicator, however, the number of Japanese who share Mr. Ozaki's support for the Japanese Communist Party is growing. The JCP is easily one of the healthiest and most vibrant communist parties on the planet.
At its last congress, in 1994, the JCP announced a membership of 360,000, down from a half-million members in 1990. Like communist parties everywhere, the JCP's political fortunes plummeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But these days Japan's communists are upbeat. The country's two main political groups - the Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition New Frontier Party - are in many respects too similar to offer voters much of a choice. Japanese who disagreed with the political status quo during most of the post-World War II era used to back the Socialist Party. But it has sacrificed many of its principles in order to be part of ruling coalitions in recent years, so many onetime socialists are grumpy and put off.
"There is a vacuum of voices," notes political scientist Yasunori Sone of Tokyo's Keio University. "The JCP, right now, is almost a replacement for the Socialist Party, [filling] its role of offering a strong opposition."
The JCP is careful to make clear that it does not want to impose a brutish dictatorship or ruin the world's second-largest economy. "Though we have communism as a future aim, we have no intention of dramatically changing Japanese society to reach communism at once," JCP chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa said in an interview last week. He advocates more controls on "big business" in the "interests of the people," but eschews nationalizing corporations.
What the JCP does do is stand on principle - again and again and again. Its victories are mostly in the realm of ideas.
Two major "achievements" that give the JCP credibility, Mr. Fuwa says, are the party's fight for democracy during the militarism of the 1930s and '40s and its criticism of the Soviet Union before Soviet communism crumbled.
As a result of the first effort, many Japanese communists were imprisoned and tortured, and the party was banned for the first 23 of its 74 years. But this history also affords the JCP some moral high ground. Fuwa, an articulate politician who wears a good suit and nice watch, puts it this way: "As far as democracy and freedom are concerned, our party has been the pioneer in Japanese political history."
Since late last year, the JCP has had some good fortune. Two of the party's traditional political positions, generally seen as rigidly idealistic, have begun to look more appealing.
The JCP has long criticized the close, occasionally collusive links between the Japanese government and corporations. These days the country is reeling from the collapse of seven housing-loan companies, a situation caused in part by lax oversight by a bureaucracy with vested interests in the industry under its control.
To make matters worse, in the eyes of the JCP, the government now wants to use taxpayers' money to liquidate the companies in the interest of shoring up Japan's ailing financial industry.
Many Japanese reject this plan, as does the JCP. "The issue is whether the policy should be to protect the very small minority of banks or to protect the interests of ordinary people," Fuwa says. "On this question our position is very clearly on the side of the people."
THE JCP is also against the US-Japan security alliance, under which the United States protects Japan in exchange for bases and facilities for its troops. Recent controversy over the presence of US troops on the Japanese island of Okinawa has caused many Japanese to question the value of the alliance.
The JCP, meanwhile, is reminding people that it has long opposed the arrangement in favor of nonaligned neutrality.
On both issues, it seems that some Japanese voters like what they hear from the Communists. In February, the party nearly won the mayoralty of Kyoto, Japan's cultural capital. The city has long been a haven for leftist politicians. But the JCP candidate did surprisingly well against an opponent backed by all of the major political parties. In a parliamentary by-election in Gifu prefecture March 24, a JCP-backed candidate came in third, but with triple the number of votes the party won the last time it contested a seat in the district.
Looking to future elections, Fuwa says, "I want to repeat this kind of advance all over the country." Many analysts insist the party will never gain any real strength. As it is, the JCP controls just 15 of the 511 seats in the lower house of Japan's parliament, down from a peak of 41 in 1979.
The JCP leader will have some help from party members like Ozaki, the high school student. The son of party members, Ozaki says he is confident that the JCP will not repeat the mistakes of communist parties elsewhere.
Sitting in a party office in the largely working-class Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki, surrounded by campaign banners and piles of the widely read party newspaper, "Red Flag," Ozaki adds: "This country's communism represents the people and the people's rights. It is seeking true democracy."