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Taro Aso’s Nazi Techniques

Aso Tiles

Taro Aso (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — Deputy Prime Minister-cum-Finance Minister-cum-Minister of Financial Services Taro Aso, who is a former prime minister, grandson of the legendary Shigeru Yoshida, and related by his sister’s marriage to the imperial family, is increasingly becoming an international laughingstock and a political embarrassment to the Abe administration. After his latest gaffe, there is widespread speculation that Abe will simply dump him from the cabinet in the reshuffle expected next month.

Before we get into Aso’s now globally-famous gaffe, it’s worth recalling that, overall, the Abe regime has produced far fewer gaffes to date than we would have expected. Remember that even in an October 1, 2012, article, reacting to the election as LDP leader of the “talentless” Shinzo Abe, the SNA initially predicted that then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda should / would hang onto power as long as possible in order to capitalize on a major Abe gaffe that we were sure was coming sooner or later.

It became clear, however, that although then-DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi saw the issue in very much the same light as we did, Prime Minister Noda had other ideas which, frankly, we still don’t understand to this very day, but at any rate led to the early collapse of the DPJ regime last December, and quite possibly the end of the party itself on a slower fuse.

But the truly damaging Abe gaffes have also been fewer than expected. We attribute our miscalculation to three factors.

First, Shinzo Abe has proved considerably more clever and pragmatic than we had expected. Abe had learned at least one valuable political lesson from his 2007 defeat, and that was that the public cares mostly about economic issues and that he needed to attend to these concerns first in order to clear the path for his real agenda on nationalism and security issues. Put simply, Abe had become more savvy during the five years he spent in the political wilderness.

The second factor we should have understood even last October, but it seems to have temporarily slipped our mind; the major media was determined to give Abe a crucial political assist, meaning that even if the LDP did things that would be treated as a “scandal” if done by the DPJ, they would be given a more-or-less free pass because of their tightness with the bureaucratic establishment. We don’t need to dwell on this point here, but it is a factor that has protected the Abe government from the full consequences of its occasional missteps.

Finally, we probably underestimated just how horrified the average LDP politician had been during the “dark days” of 2010 and 2011 when neither the media nor the public paid them their accustomed attention. They were an opposition party; their words and thoughts were not eagerly sought after and they didn’t really determine national policy anymore. As Shigeru Ishiba has openly discussed, a lot of LDP politicians were “scared straight” by the experience and this contributed to better party discipline once they were back in the saddle.

But in the wake of the July 21st victory of the ruling coalition in the House of Councillors, the pressure is now coming off and the LDP fears of marginalization are fading. They are now basically guaranteed three years in power without having to face the voters in a national election. It’s probably not a coincidence that in the midst of this ruling party euphoria that Taro Aso began waxing philosophical in front of a friendly audience at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, and the domestic media became more willing to be critical of what he said.

In that connection, one of the curious points about this particular “scandal” is that there is no consensus on what it is that Taro Aso actually was intending to communicate to his audience on July 29th. Was he citing the Nazis as an example for Japan to follow — or as an example to be avoided? Perfectly competent translators are reaching opposite conclusions on this point.

The Kyodo News rendering of Aso’s core statement was damning: “Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn the technique.”

This version, which is the one that animated most global headlines, indicates that Aso sees the Nazi approach to constitutional revision to be the one that Japan should follow today.

A much more Aso-friendly rendering comes from Peter Durfee, who is a professional translator: “Now if you say ‘let’s do it quietly,’ you need to look back at the Weimar Constitution, whose amendment went unnoticed. It was changed before most people realized it had happened. We need to learn from this. I have absolutely no intention of rejecting democracy. But I don’t want to see us make these decisions in the midst of an uproar.”

Frankly, we don’t really understand what Aso is implying about Nazi Germany in this particular version; only that he thinks constitutional revision should be done calmly.

Whichever translation you prefer, one point that is difficult to dispute is that Taro Aso’s pro-revision cause could suffer nothing but profoundly negative effects from associating it with the collapse of democracy in Germany and the rise of the Nazi regime. That’s really the kind of imagery that the Abe government was searching for, wasn’t it?

So just as Toru Hashimoto set himself up in May for the eye-popping international headline “Japanese Soldiers Must Have Sex with Sex Slaves After Battle, Japanese Mayor Says,” less than three months later this nation produces the jaw-dropping headline: “Deputy PM: Let’s Change Laws Like the Nazis Did.”

You know, there’s something about these Japanese conservatives that is just so profoundly out of step with the sensitivities and political currents of the rest of the world that they can keep provoking stories like this one. A major part of it is the Japanese hard right’s stubbornly self-referential debates and their ability to accept as incontrovertible truth a whole series of historical “facts” which the rest of the world, outside of their narrow circles, sees as the denial of history.

At any rate, this time Taro Aso had few defenders indeed.

Some of the criticism came from the expected quarters: opposition leaders called for him to resign not only from his cabinet posts, but also as a lawmaker. The foreign ministries in Seoul and Beijing couldn’t resist the opportunity to take another shot at rising “Japanese militarism” when given such a golden chance as this one. Perhaps the most stinging response came from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles: “What ‘techniques’ from the Nazis’ governance are worth learning? How to stealthily cripple democracy?”

But the anger of many ruling party lawmakers and the Kantei was also apparent. The Japanese newspapers published quotations from unnamed LDP lawmakers denouncing Deputy Prime Minister Aso as an “empty politician” and saying that he had “brought shame upon Japan.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that he had no intention of defending Aso, but that all questions about what he was trying to say in his July 29 comments should be directed to the man himself. This was a pretty clear way for the Kantei to declare that Aso was on his own as far as they were concerned.

The only major public figure to jump to Taro Aso’s defense was none other than Japan Restoration Party co-leader Toru Hashimoto, who said that he understood Aso’s comments to be “an overdone black joke” and by saying that anyone who really understands the Japanese language will realize that Aso had no intention of legitimizing the Nazi regime.

Of course, if a politician’s speech needs such a deep level of explanation before it might, maybe, possibly be acceptable, then it’s clearly a massive failure of public expression — at the very least.

To wrap up, we should mention what will probably be the most consequential aspect of this affair beyond what it means for Taro Aso’s diminished reputation and sinking political fortunes: a gaffe like this one makes the Abe government’s chances of actually pulling off constitutional revision all the more remote.