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No doubt everyone already knows what I’m going to talk about, simply from reading the title: the propensity of Japanese politicians to say the wrong thing.

Some modern legends have been Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and current Foreign Minister Taro Aso, but it seems we have additional candidates popping up every week: Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma and Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa. Are these all just ham-fisted individuals? How did these people become politicians? Are they saying these things on purpose? Does this tell us something about Japanese politics? Is there a honne/tatamae distinction come in this? That is what I want to get through in this post…

Shintaro IshiharaShintaro Ishihara is a constant source of verbal typhoons wreaking disaster upon all who care to listen. The Governor of Tokyo has insulted practically everyone. He is a nationalist and populist, a man who had accomplished much prior to his political career. Some of his choice quotes are:

  • “They say we made a holocaust there, but that is not true. It is a lie made up by the Chinese.” – Speaking about Nanjing.
  • “A bomb was planted there. I think it was deserved.” -Regarding the nationalist attempt to bomb the house of former Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka.
  • “Atrocious crimes have been committed again and again by sangokujin and other foreigners. We can expect them to riot in the event of a disastrous earthquake.” –Sangokujin is a derogatory term applied to ethnic Korean and Chinese.

He is outspoken and critical, and it grates against some people. Once a Cold Warrior, now he rails against the close US-Japan alliance, as well as expressing the xenophobia of his nationalist base. These are certainly not slips of the tongue, I have no doubt that Ishihara believes what he says. His words about Tanaka were unforgivable and quite possibly the worst to come out of his mouth.

Yoshiro MoriFormer Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, and the rest of gang below, I’m less sure about. Poor Mori was never really popular, with his approval ratings down to 6.5% before he left office. He was elected within the LDP after Keizo Obuchi was declared incapacitated, largely because of his role within the factions of the LDP. As if to highlight the nature by which he came to the top, LDP MP Kazuo Aichi said, “We don’t have any qualified candidates, so he’ll have to do.” Like Bush’s now infamous activities at the time of the 9/11, Mori continued to play golf while the fishing school ship Ehime Maru sank, holed by a collision with the submarine USS Greeneville. Some of his gems are:

  • “The government takes care of women who have given birth to a lot of children as a way to thank them for their hard work… It is wrong for women who haven’t had a single child to ask for taxpayer money when they get old, after having enjoyed their freedom and had fun.”
  • “How could we possibly secure Japan’s kokutai and ensure public safety with such a party?” – Regarding the Japanese Communist Party. The problem with this statement is its use of the word kokutai which means ‘national polity’ but with unappealing nationalist overtones due to its common usage in the militaristic period of Japan’s history.
  • “Japan is a divine nation centered on the emperor.”
  • “Lowbrow sex industries are always created first in Osaka. Excuse my language, but it is a spittoon.”

To me, Mori is like the grandad who says things that might have been acceptable when he was fighting off the natives in a colony in darkest Africa: he says things he shouldn’t, things that are ingrained in him because of upbringing, yet not at all acceptable. Mori was just not connected to the people, this rugby playing Prime Minister should never have been given the limelight. I’m sure he believes what he said, but I’m not certain he meant to use the words that he did. No excuses though, this public relations disaster was a low point in Japanese politics. He should have been kept in the backrooms of the Diet.

Taro AsoOnto Taro Aso, the corker of a Foreign Minister for both Koizumi and Abe. Aso is firmly entrenched in the political elite, his grandson was the great postwar Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, his great-great-grandfather was Toshimichi Okubo, one of the key figures of the Meiji Restoration. His wife is the daughter of former Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, and his sister married Prince Tomohito of Mikasa (6th in line to the throne).

Taro Aso has a reputation that has grown and grown. His father ran the Aso Mining Company, which used forced labourers (including PoWs) during the war. He has received a lot of criticism due to this. Although I believe hounding him for the sins of his father is unfair, I do however believe that he could have been more concerned about this and perhaps made more of an effort to air this particular dirty item of laundry. He prayed for the 1086 PoWs who died in Japan’s labour camps at Juganji temple in Osaka, which I believe was a sincere move. The problem however is whether one can truly apologies for the sins of their family, even though they never took part in it. On the other hand, the Aso Mining Company kept the labourers’ wages and so financially benefited from this action, so there is a case that he is tainted by this. Either way, Aso’s family background is enough in itself to cause controversy.

  • “We can’t let burakumin like Nonaka become the Japanese Prime Minister.” – Regarding Hiromu Nonaka, a descendant of the lowest caste of Japanese society (the untouchables if you will), the buraku. Finding a reliable quote on this is very difficult, the best I found was from Transpacific Radio. It is also quite difficult to find the quote in Japanese, so translation is also difficult. This translation came from a Nonaka’s own words.
  • “It’s most desirable the Emperor visits… to pray. Why isn’t it possible? It hasn’t been possible since visits sparked a dispute over whether such visits were personal or official.” – Regarding Yasukuni.
  • “One of the first things Japan did there was introduce compulsory education. Because of its high standard… Taiwan is catching up with the modern world.” – About Japan’s colonial control of Taiwan.

Aso is the man everyone loves to hate. Japan’s top diplomat who is anything but diplomatic. Despite this, I’ve always liked Taro Aso. I think we are often unfair on him, as commentators, and sometimes we take him too literally. I accept that he’s not a particularly savoury character, but look at that photo of him (adapted from Mutantfrog Travelogue)… it bleeds charisma!

Hakuo YanagisawaThe latest victim of the disease was Minister for Health, Labour and Welfare Hakuo Yanagisawa. Relatively unknown, the minister’s comment regarding women have propelled him into the limelight. If the adage that all PR is good PR is true, then this could be healthy for him. So, what did he say?

  • “The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head … although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”

Yes, he could have chosen his words better, but to be honest I am not all that appalled by what he said. This is a man who has moved from the Ministry of Finance, he’s talking abstractly in a way that he’s comfortable with. However, I accept that as a politician, he should be able to articulate himself without dehumanising the subjects he discusses.

Fumio Kyuma
However, for all the attention Yanagisawa garnered, Minister for Defence Fumio Kyuma still managed to penetrate into the foreign media. This outspoken man has angered the US so much that Vice President Dick Cheney is being asked not to meet with him during his trip to Japan. This man, who reminds me of the pot-bellied, smiling Hotei, seems jolly enough, but questioning Japan’s guarantor of security is not wise. So what did he say?

  • “The United States doesn’t understand [the importance of] spadework.” – Regarding the US not seeking the approval of the Governor of Okinawa in their realignment of the US Forces, Japan. I actually didn’t understand the term ‘spadework’, but supposedly it means the dull preliminary work prior to an undertaking.
  • “I think President Bush launched the war in the belief there were nuclear weapons, but I think that decision was wrong.” – Regarding the invasion of Iraq. This is the reported translation, but Transpacific Radio translated the comment as: “It seems to me that Mr Bush plunged into the war in Iraq as though the circumstances were that there were nuclear weapons there, but I think that judgement was a mistake.” They also point out that Kyuma used the informal title of Bush-san, rather than a more formal ‘President Bush’.

Does Kyuma believe what he says? Undoubtedly, and therein lies the problem. It seems strange that from the land of honne and tatamae, a cabinet minister cannot separate the two. You see, honne is the truth and tatamae is the ‘truth’. Honne is what is kept behind closed doors. Tatamae is the medium of politicians, the outward truth you want the public to know. Kyuma stated his opinion, honne, when he should have been giving the party line, tatamae.

Kyuma speaks his mind, Yanagisawa chose terrible words, Aso is a combination of the both, as is Mori. Ishihara is in the same camp as Kyuma, except when he speaks his mind he is playing up to populist sentiment. Does this tell us anything about Japanese politics? Maybe. Perhaps Kyuma, Aso and Ishihara are the product of a Japan whose politics did not escape too far past its borders, something long gone in this day and age. However, I’m not convinced of this. Perhaps what we can learn from this is that political practice in Japan is isolated from the public. It is the preserve of the elite, groomed into position by education and family. The members of the Diet are there by breeding and upbringing rather than merit and popularity.

Not all that different from the rest of the world then…



  1. Although he’s less visible than the luminaries on this list, I’d add MEXT Minister Ibuki Bunmei, if for nothing more than his, (paraphrasing) “Don’t write to me, it’s confusing to your parents,” remark to suicidal teenagers who had been writing him anonymous letters telling him about the bullying they endured.

  2. Oh absolutely! I wanted to, but I thought I’d stick to the perennial favourites plus the most recent newcomers. Perhaps I should do a second part sometime. He was in the first draft, but I took him out so that I didn’t spend too much time writing it.

    If it weren’t such a serious situation, his might have been the funniest of them all. If anything, it is the tragedy behind all this that is most disturbing, not the running of the mouth that these guys are prone to.

    Oh, and Shoichi Nakagawa and his nuclear talk could also sit in here… I’ll definitely have to think about a reprise later on.

    Thanks Garrett, great to hear from you!

  3. Great post, thanks

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