Kokoro kara owabi mōshi-agemasu” (「心からお詫び申し上げます」 “I apologize from my heart”). The hearts of Japanese politicians must be bottomless indeed, for all the apologies that seem to ferment there. Their mouths, meanwhile, are on automatic pilot, sowing shitsugen (失言, gaffe, slip of the tongue) after shitsugen — or, if you prefer a more delicate term, futekisetsu hatsugen (不適切発言, inappropriate utterance). You can’t help thinking sometimes that newspapers would be a much thinner without them.

The word 失言 will immediately call to mind the latest in a long, long line of political names associated with it: Yoshio Hachiro. He is particularly unfortunate in that his tenure as keizai-sangyōshō (経済産業省, minister of economy, trade and industry) was so short (nine days) there is little else to remember him by: 失言, お詫び (apology), exit.

Two off-the-cuff remarks to a kishadan (記者団, press scrum) echoed round the world and sealed his fate. He had just completed a shisatsu (視察, observational tour) of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and environs and said, “Shūhen chōson no shigaichi wa hitokko hitori inai masa ni shi no machi to iu katachi datta” (「周辺町村の市街地は人っ子一人いないまさに死の町という形だった」 “In the central areas of the nearby villages and towns there is not a soul around. They are real cities of death”). The second remark was intended playfully. The actual words were reported differently in different media, but the gist was, “Hōshanō wo tsukechau zo!” (「放射能をつけちゃうぞ!」”I’ll nuke you!”)

The reaction was immediate and intemperate. After the dust had settled, people started to recall that politicians and commentators had been using the expression “city of death” throughout the nuclear crisis without it bothering anyone. What was different in Hachiro’s case? Possibly the fact that he was the genpatsu mondai no sekininsha (原発問題の責任者, the official responsible for nuclear power issues). Tadamori Oshima, vice-president of the leading opposition party, Jiminto (自民党, Liberal Democratic Party, LDP), flung himself into the fray. “Karugarushiku kotoba wo haite, hisaisha kara kibō wo ubau yō na hatsugen wo suru koto jitai, daijin to shite shikkaku ni atai suru” (「軽々しく言葉を吐いて、被災者から希望を奪うような発言をすること自体、大臣として失格に値する」 “By blurting out thoughtless words and making remarks that rob disaster victims of hope, [Hachiro] forfeits his qualifications to be a minister”).

You’d think the LDP, in its 54 years of almost uninterrupted power before their historic overthrow in 2009, had never committed a 失言.

It is tempting to pause and linger a bit on the rich theme of 失言 past. We can go a long way farther back than 1979, but space is not limitless. In that year a young, up-and-coming LDP politician named Taro Aso was asked if he saw himself as a future prime minister. “Toshiyori daigishi ga nannin ka shineba ne,” he replied (「年寄り代議士が何人か死ねばね」”Yes, if a few old Diet reps die”).

Aso (prime minister 2008-9) was foreign minister in 2007 when, commenting on the rising price of rice, he said, “Nana-man hassen en to ichiman roku sen en wa docchi ga takai ka. Arutsuhaimā no hito demo wakaru” (「7万8000円と1万6000円はどちらが高いか。アルツハイマーの人でもわかる」 “Even someone with Alzheimer’s understands which price is higher, ¥78,000 or ¥16,000”).

The LDP and the DPJ have no monopoly on 失言. Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a political independent (though a one-time LDP stalwart) is so prolific that he merits a 失言 column all to himself. “Yaru nara sassato yare” (「やるならさっさとやれ 」 “If you’re gonna do it hurry up and do it”), he snapped in 2006 after hearing the Education Ministry had received letters from bullied students saying they were in despair and on the brink of suicide.

No surprise, perhaps, from the man who three years earlier had said, “Furansu-go wa kazu wo kazoerarenai gengo de, kokusaigo to shite wa shikkaku” (「フランス語は数を数えられない言語で、国際語としては失格」 “The French language can’t count numbers and is therefore disqualified as an international language”). Pardon?

Give Ishihara this much, though. No mealy-mouthed 心からお詫び from him. He sails blithely from 失言 to 失言, railing against illegal immigrant “sangokujin” (「三国人」 literally “third-country people,” a term many Asians consider offensive), dismissing female political opponents as menopausal and hisuterikku (ヒステリック, hysterical), and so on, and he gets away with it. For less audacious politicians like Hachiro, one doesn’t know whether to hope that in future they watch their tongues or stiffen their backbones. To reporters who pounce on their every word, this friendly warning: You’re getting brisk stories, but at the risk of forcing politicians to retreat ever more deeply into mumbled, meaningless, inoffensive obfuscation. That’s not good for your future copy. It’s not good for democracy either.

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