Japanese government minister's Nazi remarks cause furor

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso at a cabinet meeting at Aso's office in Tokyo on August 2, 2013.

Story highlights

  • At a seminar, the deputy prime minister refers to constitutional change under Hitler
  • "Why don't we learn from that method?" he asks
  • His comments draw criticism from China, South Korea and a Jewish group
  • He retracts the remarks, saying they were taken out of context

Japan's deputy prime minister stirred controversy this week by appearing to suggest that the government could learn from the way that Nazi Germany changed its constitution.

The remarks by Taro Aso, who is also the Japanese finance minister, provoked criticism from Japan's neighbors and a Jewish organization in the United States.

Aso, a former prime minister who has slipped up with verbal gaffes in the past, retracted the comments later in the week but refused to apologize for them or resign, saying they had been taken out of context.

Amid persistent talk in Japan about revising the country's pacifist post-war constitution, Aso set off the controversy at a seminar Monday, in which he said that discussions over constitutional changes should be carried out calmly.

"Germany's Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution before anyone knew," he said in comments widely reported by the Japanese media. "It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don't we learn from that method?"

Aso added: "I have no intention of denying democracy. Again, I repeat that we should not decide [constitutional revisions] in a frenzy."

In 1933, Adolf Hitler's National Socialists turned the democratic Weimar Republic into a dictatorship using "a combination of legal procedure, persuasion, and terror," according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

    Hitler used a fire that burned down the parliament building as a pretext to suppress the opposition through an emergency clause in the constitution. He then pushed through the Enabling Act, which allowed him to govern without parliament and vastly extend the Nazis' grip on power.

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    Words that hurt

    Aso's apparent reference to those changes drew expressions of concern from the governments of China and South Korea, two countries that suffered heavily under Japanese imperial aggression during World War II, a conflict in which Japan was allied with Nazi Germany.

    Beijing and Seoul are already wary of Japan's hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe. His campaign platform for elections last year included measures aimed at restoring Japanese national pride such as revising the constitution to give the country's self-defense forces the status of a regular army.

    Abe's party now has control of both houses of parliament. But it remains unclear if he will take on the difficult, controversial challenge of constitutional change, which would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

    Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said Wednesday that Aso's comments mean that other countries need to step up their vigilance over the direction in which Japan is headed.

    China and Japan are locked in a tense territorial dispute over a set of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that has fueled nationalist sentiments in on both sides.

    South Korea, meanwhile, called for "prudence" from Japanese political leaders.

    "Such comments definitely hurt a lot of people," Cho Tai-young, a foreign ministry spokesman, said Tuesday.

    And the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization based in Los Angeles, demanded that Aso immediately clarify his remarks.

    "What 'techniques' from the Nazis' governance are worth learning — how to stealthily cripple democracy?" asked Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the center.

    "The only lessons on governance that the world should draw from the Nazi Third Reich is how those in positions of power should not behave," Cooper said in a statement Tuesday.

    'Great misunderstandings'

    Aso responded Thursday to the criticism over his comments, which also came from opposition lawmakers in Japan, saying he regretted that the remarks had "caused great misunderstandings despite my true intentions."

    He said that he had referred to the Nazi takeover of power as a "bad example" of constitutional revision because changes were forced through "in a commotion." They should be done through calm debates instead.

    "I believe it is obvious that I feel extremely negatively about Nazi Germany, if you consider the entire context," he said. "However, since these remarks have caused serious misunderstandings, I would like to retract them."

    Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference the same day that "the Abe administration definitely does not view Nazi Germany positively and I am sure Vice Prime Minister Aso himself does not either."

    It's not the first time Aso's words have gotten him into hot water. At a meeting about social security reform and healthcare costs in January, he caused offense by suggesting it would be best for people on life support to "die quickly."

    "Aso's comment about Hitler and the implication that his example should be followed are utterly unacceptable," the Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper, said in an editorial Friday. " The remark is not something that Aso can get away with by simply retracting it."