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Japan ruling party distributes ‘anti-gaffe’ guide after litany of blunders

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso, center right, talks to U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Justin Muzinich during a high-level forum on debt in Paris on May 7. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

TOKYO — Don’t mention the war. Don’t say what you really think about women’s rights. And don’t make light of disaster victims.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has distributed a list of “gaffes” to avoid when its members speak in public after a series of embarrassing comments sparked outrage and led to the resignations of several cabinet ministers, Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reported Wednesday.

The advice sheet was titled “How to Prevent Gaffes and Misunderstandings” and came as an insert in a public speaking handbook, the paper said.

In a section about strong words that tend to be used in headlines, it listed five types of problematic speech.

Here they are, together with a few examples the author of the report might have had in mind, mostly from the ruling party but also from other parties’ politicians.

1. “Personal views on historical understanding and political ideology”

In other words, don’t mention Japan’s war record. “It is difficult to apologize for,” the manual warned.

Then-Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a lawmaker known for her revisionist views of Japan’s wartime history, was condemned by China even as she took up her post in 2016 after repeatedly sidestepping questions on whether she condemned atrocities committed by Japan, including the 1937-1938 Nanjing massacre in China.

But Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of the city of Nagoya from the Genzei Nippon party, went much further in 2012, denying that mass murders and rapes of civilians had taken place at all and arguing that there had been only conventional combat deaths.

And then there’s Finance Minister Taro Aso’s infamous remark in 2017 that while Hitler was “no good, his motive was right.”

2. “Personal views on gender and LGBT issues"

There are plenty to choose from in this category, but Aso stands out again for his 2018 defense of a former deputy who had been accused of sexually harassing a journalist. Aso was reported to have suggested that the journalist could have left the scene if she objected to the official’s offensive remarks, that the media should assign only men to the Finance Ministry if they objected and that sexual harassment is not a crime. His comments, which came just as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum in Japan, provoked street protests and were voted the most sexist remarks of 2018 in a survey.

But lawmaker Mio Sugita also brought thousands of people into the streets and came in a close second in the survey for suggesting that taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be wasted on promoting same-sex marriage, in a society where the birthrate is falling, because their unions don’t bear children and are “unproductive."

3. “Comments that lack consideration toward accidents and disasters"

Cybersecurity and Olympics Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada resigned in April after offending victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami by suggesting that a campaign fundraising meeting for a colleague from the affected region was more important than the reconstruction of the area. He had previously been mocked for admitting, as cybersecurity minister, that he didn’t use computers — and didn’t understand cybersecurity.

Japan cybersecurity minister who doesn’t use computers now admits he doesn’t get cybersecurity either

Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura also resigned in 2017 after suggesting that it was a good thing the 2011 disaster had happened in the northeastern Tohoku region rather than closer to Tokyo, because then damage would have been catastrophic. The remarks were seen as the last straw after a series of remarks viewed as offensive to victims.

4. “Comments about illness and old age"

Aso, again, this time in 2013. “Even if they wanted to die, the (elderly) are being encouraged to live on,” he said. “They should be allowed to hurry up and die.”

(Aso not only retains the Finance Ministry portfolio, but he’s also deputy prime minister.)

5. “Banter-type expressions that could draw laughs from those close to oneself”

There are a couple of examples from this Japan Times rundown of the worst gaffes and their aftermath.

In 2011, having just returned from a trip to radiation-hit Fukushima, Yoshio Hachiro of the Democratic Party of Japan joked that he would “nuke” a reporter while reportedly trying to rub his protective gear on the journalist. He eventually had to step down as minister of economy, trade and industry.

LDP lawmaker Shunsuke Mutai also resigned from a vice minister’s post in 2017 after joking about an embarrassing incident from the year before, when he was carried piggyback by a government official through floodwaters in a region hit by a typhoon. At a fundraising party, he joked that “the rain boot industry made a lot of money” from the incident.

And we could perhaps respectfully suggest a couple more, such as: Don’t get drunk before talking in front of the media. An opposition politician was forced to resign this week after drunkenly suggesting that his country might want to go to war with Russia to reclaim a disputed island chain, local media reported.

Hodaka Maruyama of the neoconservative opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai party made the remarks after accompanying former Japanese residents to the Russian-controlled Kunashir Island, one of four islands seized by the Soviet Union in the final days of World War II. Local media reported that he later admitted to having drunk alcohol before the outburst. He apologized “for making many people feel uncomfortable” after his remarks were widely condemned in Japan, including by the head of his party.

And finally, perhaps, although the manual didn’t say this: Don’t make openly racist remarks.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone caused an uproar in 1986 with this comment: “The intelligence level in the U.S. is much lower than in Japan because of a significant makeup of the black and Mexican population as well as people in Puerto Rico.”

The Mainichi newspaper reported one source close to the LDP as saying that the fact that such a manual was needed showed the “pathetic state of affairs.”

Ichiro Ozawa, a 76-year-old former opposition party leader, highlighted the passage about showing consideration to the disadvantaged and tweeted that the problem was not avoiding gaffes, but the underlying attitudes they reveal.

“The Abe administration does not understand anything,” he wrote in tweet shared more than 1,000 times. “They think putting up a decent facade is sufficient. The problem is not those statements in and of themselves, but the human nature of each minister and politician, and the way the Abe administration allocates personnel to the posts in its own style. The administration does not understand the suffering of the people. How can this not be a national crisis?”

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report from Tokyo.