Taro Aso, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Japan, has a clumsy tongue; it’s always getting him into trouble. He’s so malapropic (remember the one about people becoming so affluent ‘even the homeless are getting diabetes’), we can only shake our heads and say, ‘Japan’s a funny place,’ before changing the channel on our Sonys.
But wait a moment. Did he really say this latest thing?
On Monday Aso addressed a forum on constitutional change organised by a right-wing lobby group, the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (more on it later). He spoke extempore, as usual, with an eye to creating controversy that, if necessary, might be explained away later. The rubric ‘I was misunderstood’ or ‘I failed to explain myself properly’ or ‘I didn’t say what I meant’ is familiar with politicians of Aso’s type, who habitually linger between not meaning what they say and not saying what they mean.
The Deputy Prime Minister reminded his audience that the National Socialist Party in Germany came to power by democratic means under the Weimar Constitution. ‘They did not seize power by force of arms. It’s easy to forget they were chosen by the German people.’
He then turned to the subject at hand.
Inside Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, he said, discussion of constitutional change went on calmly, without raised voices, and that was the best way to proceed. Politicians need not stir up passions by, for instance, visiting Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat. (Yasukuni enshrines the country’s war dead, including a number of convicted war criminals.) China and South Korea were sure to complain. Why not go, quietly, on another day? It was always better to avoid a fuss (though he conceded, mischievously, that when he once suggested the anniversary of Japan’s 1905 victory over Russia as a better day it had caused one.)
Mr Aso again took up the example of Germany to illustrate his argument: ‘One day, before anyone was aware, the Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution. It was changed without anyone noticing. Why don’t we learn from that technique.’
Presumably the particular audience he was addressing found it instructive to learn from the Nazis, since it was not until his comments were reported in the media, and condemned in the United States, Germany, China and South Korea, that a retraction became necessary. Reading from a prepared statement on Friday he conceded that it was inappropriate to offer the Nazis as a model for any undertaking. He had been ‘misunderstood’.
In reporting Aso’s original comments, some Japanese media outlets suggested he was being sarcastic, or at least ambiguous, and should not be taken seriously. The Japan Times – well known for its pro-LDP leanings – was one of them. But having gone over Aso’s entire speech with the assistance of a Japanese native speaker, I believe there can be no doubt he was extolling the virtues of constitutional change by stealth.
Aso is not a minor member of the government. He served – without distinction – as Prime Minister in 2008-2009 and remains close to the current leader Shinzo Abe. Both men are descendants of Japan’s conservative old guard. Taro Aso is a grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, who led Japan in the 1940s and 1950s, and his wife is a daughter of another former LDP chief Zenko Suzuki. His views on history reflect an intimate connection with past historical misdeeds. A family business, Aso Mining Company, in Fukuoka (Aso’s electorate) exploited Korean conscript labour and Allied prisoners, including nearly 200 Australian POWs.
The organisation that provided Aso a platform for his ‘Nazi’ remarks, the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, formed in 2007, has a mission to ‘reconstruct’ a ‘malfunctioning’ Japan. Its president is Yoshiko Sakurai, 67, whose career in journalism began with the foreign media in Tokyo in the 1970s. She attracted a following as the host of a nightly television current affairs program in the 1980s and 1990s, taking up progressive social issues. More recently, however, she has become a glamorous proponent of extreme right-wing views.
Her institute can be judged by its string of recent policy pronouncements: ‘All Japanese must be resolved to reject foreign interference in our own affairs’; ‘Japan should lead international rule-setting to pursue national interest’; ‘Japan should not abandon nuclear power generation’. Sakurai advocates a tough line against China and South Korea, abandonment of Japan’s pacifist constitution, and all-out pursuit of the LDP’s economic and cultural agenda. Born in Hanoi just a month after the surrender, she is the archetypal ‘child’ of the postwar peace and prosperity Japan has enjoyed under its current constitution. As a political insider and media darling, however, she appeals to younger Japanese ripe to be recruited to the argument that Japan has become a ‘malfunctioning state’ (a phrase the Nazis would have approved of) due to a lack of vigour and self-assertiveness.
The accident-prone Mr Aso will have done his country and the world a service if only, by knocking over the furniture, he has managed to awaken the household to the presence of intruders stepping softly towards the family jewels.