11 December 2008

The delicate art of Japanese politics

From a BBC report on the foot-in-mouth problems besetting recent Japanese governments:

In recent months, [Prime Minister] Aso has accused doctors of lacking common sense, criticised parents and made contradictory policy statements. His most recent target was the "feeble" elderly - a group whose support is vital to the ailing LDP. Why, Mr Aso asked, should he have to pay taxes for those who "just eat and drink and make no effort".

Public anger forced top government spokesman Takeo Kawamura into a clarification. The prime minister had wanted to stress that pensioners should take an active role in maintaining their health, he said.

"It would be better if I did not have to explain [the comments]," he added. "But it's part of his character and there may be various comments from now on, and it's my job to make efforts to let everyone understand his real intention."

Taro Aso is not alone; there is an established tradition of gaffes from Japan's leading lawmakers. Almost as soon as Mr Aso took office, his tourism minister, Nariaki Nakayama, had to resign after calling Japan an "ethnically homogeneous" country that did not like foreigners.

Shinzo Abe's cabinet was plagued by ill-judged comments. One of the most high-profile was when his health minister called women "birth-giving machines" and appeared to blame them for the low birth rate.

By far the most notorious plain-speaker, however, was Yoshiro Mori, prime minister briefly between 2000 and 2001. He joked about Aids, said the US was full of "gangsters" and offended the entire city of Osaka by calling it a "spittoon". After a few months in office, bureaucrats reportedly made him speak only from cue cards.

- BBC News, 9 December 2008

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