Trending on social media recently is a thread of tweets describing the characters of the Japanese Communist Party’s mascot universe. It drew my attention not only because the mascots were cute, but also because the descriptions were comically clever.

The main mascot, Koyo no Yoko, represents the Japanese workforce, which is the communists’ main constituency. She also creatively underscores the party’s emphasis on gender sensitivity in the workplace: Koyo no Yoko is a “mysterious middle-aged woman who likes to lie about her age.”

The other characters are downright hilarious. Otento-sun is an angry sun that represents the party’s environmental policy. She turns into Super Saiyan mode – extremely angry, that is – whenever she hears someone mention nuclear power. Shiisa, on the other hand, is an Okinawan lion that represents the party’s neutral foreign policy platform. His mouth is perpetually open due to his locked jaw syndrome. He got his jaw unhinged from years of screaming against the presence of U.S. bases in Okinawa.

Mascots are a perennial obsession in Japan. Every prefecture, city, and township has one, as do a great number of companies and other private groups. Indeed, even non-Japanese entities. An Israeli friend of mine, who once oversaw the cultural section of Tel Aviv’s embassy in Tokyo, likes to recall with pride one of his biggest achievements as cultural officer in Japan: the introduction of Shaloum-chan, a mascot representing Israel. His name is derived, obviously, from the Hebrew word for peace.

Shaloum-chan’s popularity inspired a great number of embassies to likewise enlist their own bizarre characters from the mascot world. The Thai embassy, for instance, has a character named Muay Taishi. The mascot’s name is a play on the words “muay thai,” which refers to Thai boxing, and “taishi,” which is the Japanese word for ambassador.

That both Shaloum-chan and Muay Taishi immediately clicked was a testament to the peculiar Japanese obsession with cuteness, known to social scientists as kawaii culture. Together with the manga craze, kawaii has become a defining characteristic of Japan’s contemporary zeitgeist.

In recent decades, this culture has spread throughout Asia and beyond. As a result, Japanese soft power has been greatly enhanced regionally. In Southeast Asia and Taiwan, Japanese popular culture has been instrumental in achieving catharsis from wartime angst. Contemporary Japanese mascots replete with flashy colors and childlike features do not square with the image of the abusive Kempeitai officer of decades past. For many Asian peoples, therefore, kawaii culture drives home the point that the Japanese of today are a pacifist, if not actually docile, people.

Yet the popularity of kawaii culture and the accompanying perception of Japanese timidity have also camouflaged a limited but lingering nostalgia in Japan about the country’s imperial past.

Not-so-kawaii view on history

Unlike its German counterpart, much of the Japanese political establishment has not been fully sold on the mainstream narrative that Japan was at fault for prosecuting the previous war. The conservative right has traditionally viewed this official history as mere victors’ narrative, and their supporters have made subtle attempts to revise it.

The Germans totally dismantled the Nazi Reich and created an entirely new state — well two states, actually — right after the war. In contrast, Japan’s defeat did not result in a fundamental rupture in the Japanese political continuum, or what the Japanese refer to as the kokutai. Not only was the ancient emperor system retained, the old guard was also rehabilitated and reinstated as Japan’s postwar ruling class.

Historians could of course split hairs and say that these rehabilitated Japanese politicians had not been directly responsible for the atrocities. But this is like absolving Hitler’s favorite architect Albert Speer for claiming to have been just doing his job. Nobody in allied-occupied Germany would have countenanced rehabilitating Speer despite his relatively minor role (according to Nuremberg jurists) in the Nazi state. In Japan, however, the Americans helped rehabilitate the wartime munitions minister Nobusuke Kishi — technically Speer’s direct counterpart — along with many other rightists. These wartime officials eventually established the party that has ruled Japan almost continuously since then.

Kishi went on to become a committed democrat and a seminal postwar prime minister, or course. The rehabilitation of wartime Japanese leaders did not result in Japan’s return to militarism. In fact, they built a pacifist country that has contributed greatly to upholding the liberal international order that continues to guarantee our peace today.

Still, their personal attachments to the wartime era made them unable to fully repudiate the past. Many of them harbored a sentimental desire to embellish their places in history. Their offspring naturally share these sentiments, and most of them have gone on to become Japan’s leaders today. This explains why Japanese officialdom sometimes finds it difficult to fully repent to the extent that the Germans did, and why historical revisionism in Japan remains a potent movement.

The Japanese communists can take credit for the fact that this revisionist movement remains on the fringes so far. No other political organization has been as instrumental in tempering institutional wartime nostalgia as the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). It is in this context that I find the party’s recent embrace of kawaii culture as remarkably apt.

How Japanese communists countered revisionism

The success of the JCP’s silent efforts to temper historical revisionism is rooted in its tradition as the party of intellectuals. Before the war, the only path for Japanese intellectuals to challenge the imperial political set-up and the militarism that it spawned was through the socialist stream. For the first few decades of the last century, the JCP became the incubator for progressive thought. Alas, the vast majority of this intellectual class was imprisoned as soon as the militarist took over.

When they were released right after MacArthur established democracy in 1945, they wasted no time rejoining the universities. While the erstwhile members of the rightist government joined politics, the leftist intellectuals dominated the academe. As a result, much of Japan’s postwar academic tradition became generally grounded in leftist thought. Then as now, the academe has consistently frowned upon any attempts to revise history.

This anti-revisionist tradition was later echoed in public education. The Japanese communists silently built influence among public school teachers. Today, the JCP has vast command of teachers’ unions across the country. These teachers’ unions are effective circuit breakers against revisionist currents within the generally conservative public education bureaucracy.

Whenever the Chinese and Korean governments protest the occasional approval by the Japanese education ministry of revisionist history textbooks, for example, they often forget that these books never reach the vast majority of schools in the first place. Procurement of instruction materials remains devolved to the local school boards, and many of them are filled with communist allies or sympathizers. They have consistently rejected the use of revisionist textbooks in their history classes.

This resistance goes beyond textbooks. The communists reject the hinomaru as the national flag and kimigayo as the national anthem, seeing them as relics from Japan’s militarist past. When conservative bureaucrats ordered schools to hold weekly flag ceremonies, several teachers refused, citing freedom of thought and conscience. The case remains the subject of complex litigation.

Japan’s nuanced communism

In politics, however, the JCP’s influence remains limited. Still, some see it as the most venerable and ideologically credible political party in Japan today. The Liberal Democratic Party has been Japan’s ruling party for the entire postwar period save for only two short interregnums. It is therefore seen as the bastion of the establishment. The Japanese like to joke that the Liberal Democrats are neither liberal nor democratic.

The second biggest party, the Komeito, has a progressive and inclusive platform. It is, however, generally perceived to be merely the political arm of the Soka Gakkai movement, a powerful religious sect within Nichiren Buddhism. Meanwhile, a plethora of small opposition parties come and go, and most Japanese struggle to keep track of them.

The JCP, on the other hand, stands out for having never wavered from its ideology since its founding in the 1920s. It is now the most successful non-ruling communist party in the world. Its sufficiently solid nationwide support base is not only loyal, but can also be counted upon to show up at polling booths consistently. The JCP is also unique for being the only Japanese political party to be completely self-funded. It can therefore credibly claim to be beholden to none.

Parts of the party’s revenues, for instance, come from subscriptions to the Akahata Shimbun, or the Red Flag, its official newspaper. Unlike typical party organs worldwide, the Akahata demonstrates a sufficient measure of journalistic integrity. Indeed, some diplomats in Japan look to it as a credible alternative news source. It is, after all, the only Japanese newspaper that is not controlled by the old boys’ kisha clubs, an entrenched cartel of reporters, editors, and publishers. Indeed, the Akahata‘s relative credibility underscores the JCP’s uniqueness among communist parties across the world.

In a way, if the party today remains credible thirty-years after the collapse of the global communist bloc, it is partly because of its long history of fierce independence.

Instead of taking sides during the Sino-Soviet split, for example, the JCP picked none. The party initially maintained neutrality but eventually denounced Soviet imperialism. Still, although the Japanese communists joined Zhou Enlai in indoctrinating Japanese prisoners of war in Yan’an during the war, they fiercely resisted China’s efforts to draw them into the Maoist orbit. The party derided the Mao Zedong Thought as “contemporary dogmatism,” which is basically redspeak for heresy.

In its most recent party congress, the JCP denounced its Chinese counterpart for being “unworthy of the communist name,” blasting what it said were China’s international maritime aggression and systemic repression of the Uighur in Xinjiang.

In other words, the JCP prides itself for being independent of both the Soviet and Chinese streams of communism. Of course, the party also rejects the heresy of North Korea’s juche. This is basically like being Christian but neither Catholic nor Protestant nor Orthodox at the same time.

Beyond this ideological autonomy, the JCP is also unique for having long renounced armed struggle as a legitimate means of taking power. This renunciation was originally a ploy to attain legal status, but the party has eventually taken this pacifism to heart. These are all part of the JCP’s modernization, which has accelerated even further in recent years.

Long opposed to the perpetuation of the emperor system, the party has recently ended its traditional boycott of the Emperor’s speech at every opening session of the Diet, or Japan’s parliament. While still officially advocates of a republican system, the Japanese communists now recognize the Emperor’s legitimacy. This is apt considering that the JCP and the Imperial Family, ironically, seem to see eye-to-eye on the most consequential issue of the Japanese political psyche today: the continuation of Japan’s official pacifism.

In the end, this strategic flexibility is key to the Japanese communists’ political resilience. Their use of popular mascots is just another ploy to attract a growing number of Japanese citizens who are interested in politics but disillusioned with the ruling class. It will take more than mascots for the Japanese communists to graduate from their perennial place in the opposition, of course. But I suspect the spirit that led them to introduce those mascots would help them remain relevant in the years to come.

Not a few observers of Japanese politics argue that the Japanese Communist Party’s continued relevance enhances the integrity of Japan’s political system. This system, like that of any democracy, benefits from a credible opposition, something that only the communists have been able to consistently supply so far.

But beyond Japanese politics, the party’s mainstreaming could also help enrich the political awareness of those in other liberal democracies. The Japanese communists’ nuanced application of Marxist thought demonstrates that there is more to communism than the caricature painted by the legacy of McCarthyist tradition.