Japan Minister’s 'Weimar Constitution' Comment Draws Fire

Windwing - Japan Minister's 'Weimar Constitution' Comment Draws Fire
Taro Aso, Japan's deputy prime minister and finance minister, makes a speech in Tokyo on July 25.

Finance Minister Taro Aso has come under fire for comments that some listeners interpreted as suggesting Tokyo should look to Nazi Germany as a model in changing its pacifist constitution — though aides deny that intent.

The reported comments from the gaffe-prone politician quickly drew criticism from a Jewish human rights group as well as from South Korea, which suffered under Japan's past militarism. Earlier this year, Mr. Aso angered Seoul by visiting a controversial Tokyo war shrine.

During a Tokyo speech Monday, Mr. Aso — who also serves as deputy prime minister and was once prime minister — said Japan should learn how Germany's constitution under the Weimar Republic was transformed by the Nazis before anybody realized what was happening.

"Germany's Weimar Constitution was changed before anyone noticed. It was changed before anyone was aware. Why don't we learn from that technique," Japanese media quoted Mr. Aso as saying. The comments were confirmed by his office.

His aides said Mr. Aso was in his local district on the southern island of Kyushu on Wednesday and couldn't be reached for comment. But they said his remarks were taken out of context, and Mr. Aso didn't say anything to praise Nazi Germany. Rather,  he was trying to convey how discussions over constitutional revision should be conducted in a calm environment.

"Minister Aso referred to pre-war Germany as a negative example for Japan," said Ichiro Muramatsu, one of Mr. Aso's secretaries. "Continuing emotionally charged discussions could lead the discussions into a wrong direction. Mr. Aso didn't in any way support the Nazi constitution or the way they changed the Weimer constitution."

A report by Kyodo news agency also quoted Mr. Aso as saying how the Weimar constitution was the most "progressive" in Europe at the time, but that the Nazis emerged under it. "Even under a good constitution, things like that happen," he was quoted as saying.

Whatever Mr. Aso's intended meaning, the extended quotes in the Japanese media suggest that, as is sometimes the case, his comments were a bit rambling, and the point was articulated in an ambiguous manner that could leave members of the same audience reaching different conclusions — or at least scratching their heads.

Mr. Aso was speaking at an event organized by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a conservative think tank that has called for revising the constitution. The group has also stirred controversy by denying widespread claims Japan's military was involved in forcibly recruiting women to work in battlefield brothels during the war.

Mr. Aso's reported comments immediately drew criticism from South Korea, whose relationship with Japan has been strained by disputes over Japan's wartime actions and territorial disagreements, and which views warily Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's drive to revise the postwar pacifist constitution.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters Tuesday that Mr. Aso's remarks "obviously hurt many people."

"It is also clear how such remarks are seen by the peoples of neighboring countries invaded by imperial Japan in the past. I believe that the Japanese political leaders should be careful with their words and behavior," Mr. Cho said, according to an official ministry transcript.

The Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, also released a statement Tuesday urging Mr. Aso to clarify his remarks.

"What 'techniques' from Nazis' governance are worth learning–how to stealthily cripple democracy?" the statement quoted rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the SWC, as saying.

"Has Vice Prime Minister Aso forgotten that Nazi Germany's ascendancy to power quickly brought (the) world to the abyss and engulfed humanity in the untold horrors of World War II? The only lessons on governance… from the Nazi Third Reich are how those (in) positions of power should not behave," Rabbi Cooper concluded.

Japan's top government spokesman declined to comment, saying the issue was up to Mr. Aso. "I believe this is something that Minister Aso should respond to," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

Mr. Aso is no stranger to verbal gaffes and political controversy. In 2001, Mr. Aso, then the economy minister, told a roomful of foreign journalists: "It's good that foreigners are working in Japan. This may be arbitrary and biased, but a good country is a country where rich Jews would want to live."

During his 2008-2009 premiership, he said doctors were "lacking in social common sense," and that stock market players were "not trusted." He once publicly uttered a sigh of relief that it was a "good thing" that a 2008 rain storm "took place in Okazaki," where two people died in the storm, and not in more populous Nagoya.

After becoming finance minister last December, Mr. Aso found himself in the hot seat after local media reported he said the country's elderly should die without using expensive life-sustaining treatment funded by taxpayers.  He denied the reports, saying he was misinterpreted. He also drew attention in June for suggesting the main reason Japan's banks avoided the subprime crisis was that their poor command of English stopped them from making the complicated investments.

–Toko Sekiguchi contributed to this item.

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