TOKYO – Beneath the strait-laced veneer of some Japanese politicians is a propensity for tactless remarks, as seen in a series of gaffes that have incurred the ire of locals.
Their topics have run the gamut from the Great East Japan earthquake that struck Fukushima in 2011, to issues such as cancer, the elderly and the arts.
While Japanese politicians tend to religiously stick to scripts written by career bureaucrats, some have gotten in trouble when they decided to speak off-the-cuff, usually at private functions or when they think the cameras are not rolling.
The liberal Asahi Shimbun and the official China Daily newspaper have, in recent editorials, accused the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of complacency which they say has led to such controversies.
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The China Daily said on Wednesday (May 31): “Though gaffes know no political parties, people in the Abe administration and the ruling LDP, which has no immediate rivals, are getting too big for their breeches.”
Here are five recent examples where Japanese politicians have been caught with their feet in their mouths:
“Cancer patients do not have to work”
Who: Mr Hideo Onishi, LDP lawmaker
When: May 2017
Japan is now debating a series of anti-smoking laws that, if passed, will clamp down on smoking indoors. The Health Ministry bill has come into strong opposition even within the ruling LDP, which has many lawmakers with ties to influential tobacco lobby groups and restaurant associations.
Finance Minister Taro Aso, who is known to be a smoker, has himself questioned the science behind research that show a correlation between smoking and cancer. In February he even suggested the use of e-cigarettes in the Diet, saying: “How about proposing the smoking of such cigarettes in the Diet? I believe heated debates might decrease a bit because they will help calm down irritable moods.”
That candid remark aside, the public was all the more incensed by the insensitivity of Mr Onishi’s comment that was made during a meeting of the LDP’s health, welfare and labour division, in response to a party comrade who was highlighting the risks of passive smoking.
Mr Onishi has since apologised for “hurting the feelings of current and recovering cancer patients”, and clarified that what he had meant to say was that “cancer patients don’t have to force themselves to work in places where smoking is allowed”.
He did not retract his earlier remark, even though the LDP’s second-in-command Toshihiro Nikai said Mr Onishi should “deeply reflect” on what he said. His remarks also prompted top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga to emphasise that providing job support for cancer-stricken patients is essential.
“Good that 2011 quake hit the Tohoku region”
Who: Mr Masahiro Imamura, former reconstruction minister
When: April 2017
Mr Imamura, who was first appointed as reconstruction minister in a Cabinet reshuffle in August last year, lost his job within eight months after saying that it was “good” the March 11, 2011 triple tragedy of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster struck Fukushima instead of the Tokyo metropolis.
The disaster killed 18,500 people and displaced 174,000 residents. His remarks about Fukushima spurred a social media movement #tohokudeyokatta , which translates to “It was good that it happened in Tohoku”, with many posts including pictures of cherry blossoms, scenic views and historic sites.
At the time that he made the remark, Mr Imamura was already in the limelight that same month for an outburst at a journalist who asked how his agency intended to assist voluntary evacuees. He had shouted that they “should take responsibility for their own actions” before storming out of the press conference.
Mr Imamura later apologised, and clarified that he had meant that an earthquake of such magnitude would have inflicted greater damage had it struck Tokyo.
But he still lost his job, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying that the “incredibly inappropriate” remarks were “hurtful to people in disaster-stricken areas”.
“Curators of cultural properties are a cancer that needs to be eradicated”
Who: Mr Kozo Yamamoto, regional revitalisation minister
When: April 2017
Mr Yamamoto had described curators of Japanese cultural properties as a “cancer” that needs to be “eradicated”, saying that they have failed to present such assets in a way that foreigners can easily understand.
“The biggest cancer is the curators. We have to eradicate the lot of them (because they) lack the normal tourism mindset,” he said at a seminar held in Shiga prefecture.
He also mistakenly said the British Museum in London had won over more tourists after it “dismissed” its curators.
Mr Yamamoto has apologised and retracted his comment, which he called inappropriate. He said what he meant was that curators ought to do more to make Japanese culture and history more accessible to foreign tourists.
“Rain boot industry made a lot of money from my gaffe”
Who: Mr Shunsuke Mutai, former parliamentary vice minister for reconstruction
When: March 2017
Mr Shunsuke Mutai lost his job as a junior minister over a wisecrack in March about his own faux pas last September, when he was pictured taking a piggyback ride across a large puddle in a typhoon-hit town so as not to damage his dress shoes.
Typhoon Lionrock had killed 19 people – a majority of them elderly stranded in a home – in Iwaizumi town in Iwate prefecture, and Mr Mutai was then leading a damage inspection team.
Climbing onto the back of a subordinate for the piggyback ride, Mr Mutai said in a flippant remark caught on film and leaked to private news broadcaster TBS: “I’ll be in trouble if this were caught on camera.”
He apologised and the incident blew over, but he brought it up again at a private fundraiser in March, when he quipped that his gaffe led to the boot industry “really making some money” as the government bought more rain boots for their officials.
Mr Suga, the top government spokesman, said Mr Mutai’s comments were “extremely regrettable” and had raised questions over whether he had “sincerely reflected on his behaviour” since last September.
“How much longer do you intend to live?”
Who: Mr Taro Aso, deputy prime minister and finance minister
When: June 2016
Japan’s rapidly ageing population and the strains being placed on the country’s pension and healthcare systems have been widely documented.
Mr Aso, who is now 76, has been very vocal against the elderly. He said at a LDP campaign rally in the run-up to the Upper House election in July last year: “I recently saw someone as old as 90 on television, saying how the person was worried about the future. I wondered, ‘How much longer do you intend to live?'”
This was not the first time he has implied the country’s elderly are an unnecessary burden on Japan’s finances.
He said in 2013: “Heaven forbid if you are forced to live on when you want to die. I would wake up feeling increasingly bad knowing that the treatment was all being paid for by the government.”
And in 2008, when he was prime minister, he said: “I see people aged 67 or 68 at class reunions who dodder around and are constantly going to the doctor. Why should I have to pay for people who just eat and drink and make no effort?”