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Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008
Japan's prime minister isn't choosy about who his gaffes target
Way back in 1977 there was a famous war film called "A Bridge Too Far." Now, perhaps somebody should make a movie starring Prime Minister Taro Aso titled "Osugita Shitsugen (A Gaffe Too Many)."
Several throws of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's premiership dice ago, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was described as being like "a cold pizza." With his one slip after another, Aso is like a box of sushi that's been all shaken up: Open the lid and all the pieces are there; they're just not in the right place.
Slips of the tongue have a long history. As the Latin equivalent lapsus linguae attests, people in togas were as prone to putting their sandaled feet in their mouths as are suited folk today. But Prime Minister Aso is the Grand Master of the Gaffe.
Gaffes by political leaders are important. They may come from the subconscious, as Freud teaches us, so revealing the blunderer's true inner feelings. In the United States, a single embarrassing gaffe by a candidate for high office can eliminate him or her from the race. Here in Japan, they are usually shrugged off, bundled into the category of "bumbling."
But in Aso's case, the bumblings are now so numerous as to give us insight into the man's honne, or underlying motives.
When Aso was asked by reporters in 1979 if he would be a future prime minister, he replied, "If a few aging Diet members die off." (A similar inelegant reference to old people returned in his latest gaffe, which we'll get to soon.) Then, on the campaign trail in 1983, instead of calling the Japanese people kokumin no minasama (my fellow citizens), he referred to them as heimin no minasama (all you commoners out there). A joke, perhaps; but this is a country in which a joke out of place is often taken for the insult it may imply.
The disdain implied in many of Aso's statements is not limited to his own people. In 1979, he said of the Chinese, "Trading with China is a waste of time. The Chinese don't have any money. There's no way we would be able to collect on them." Fast forward to 2008, and whoops, where would the Japanese economy be without its lucrative trade with China?
Besides being aimed at someone's age or entire nations, Aso's barbed gaffes have also touched the sensitive topic of weight. In July 2002, he said of the popular then-governor of Nagano Prefecture, Yasuo Tanaka, "What a revolting body shape he has with all that ugly fat." I have been unable to ascertain the weight of Aso's portly grandfather, ex-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, but judging by his appearance, I wouldn't be surprised if he weighed in close to the maligned ex-Gov. Tanaka. And Yoshida was 76 when he left office, making him another one of those "old Diet members."
In October 2003, Aso lashed out at the homeless, saying, "What an affluent era we're living in! Even the homeless are getting diabetes." Two years later, on the opening of the Kyushu National Museum near the northern Kyushu town of Daizaifu, he intoned, "There is no other country like Japan, where there is one culture, one civilization, one ethnicity, one language."
This wonderful museum's main exhibition is titled "Ocean Ways, Asian Paths." Its Cultural Exchange Exhibition Room normally displays 800 items highlighting Japan's intimate cultural ties throughout history with the rest of Asia; and the museum's Web site is readable in six languages — the top two of which are Chinese and Korean.
On July 4, 2006, Aso referred in public to the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung as Kimu Nantoka, or "Kim What's-his-name." Four days later, he thanked Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, for firing a missile, saying it would bring North Korea to the attention to the world's leading nations.
You don't have to be old, overweight, Chinese or Korean to be the target of these awkward misstatements. In July 2007, while giving a talk in Toyama Prefecture, Aso remarked that "even people with Alzheimer's" could tell the difference between the price of rice in Japan and that overseas. The next day he apologized for the remark and retracted it.
In February this year, Aso again issued thanks abroad — this time to the Chinese, whose tainted frozen gyoza (Chinese ravioli) had been sold in Japan. The Japanese organization Nokyo (Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives), he claimed, "should be grateful to China."
In July this year, he compared the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to the Nazis. In September, while campaigning in Nagoya, he let slip a remark about the torrential rains that had occurred around Okazaki City the month before, where three people had died. Those rains, he said with remarkable insensitivity to the bereaved, "brought about 140 ml in one hour. That may be fine (there), but if the same thing were to occur in Nagoya, this whole place would be flooded." Again he apologized, this time in writing to leaders in the affected area.
One may well ask whether all these tongue-lashings are truly gaffes. Putting aside the fact that they are illiberal, intolerant and ill conceived, I wouldn't call them slips of the tongue.
The prime minister is a man who means what he says — and he gave it to Japan's doctors late last month, blaming them for the shortage of medical staff in hospitals. "To tell the truth," he said, "a lot of doctors are devoid of common sense when it comes to society. . . . [The shortage] is you doctors' fault, wouldn't you say?"
The above is by no means a complete list of Aso's verbal clangers. Yet, the very latest gaffe by the prime minister may be the one that takes the cake. In a society said to have the largest percentage of old people in the world — today, more than one in five Japanese are 65 or over; by 2050 this may very well be two in five — it would not seem politic to denigrate the elderly. But this is precisely what Aso did on Nov. 20.
"Why should I pay tax for people who just sit around and do nothing but eat and loll about drinking (taratara nonde)?" he said — later to apologize for the remark on national television.
To characterize a sizable minority of your citizenry as nanimo shinai hito (people who just sit around doing nothing) is an affront to the nation as a whole. These gaffes form a record that can be read both in Japan and overseas. It is a record of embarrassment. How a prime minister can remain in office with such a record is bewildering.
The Japanese have a dish called chirashi-zushi. The word chirashi means "scattered, strewn about." Today, all Japan's political sushi is chirashi-zushi. The lid is off the sushi box and nothing is where it should be.
How long will the Japanese people simply put the lid back on and pretend the mess isn't there, before deciding to take their support elsewhere?