Gaffe-prone Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori put his foot in his mouth again, plunging his Cabinet’s popularity ratings to record lows just as Japan is gearing up for a June 25 general election.

The latest opinion poll published by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun showed the Cabinet’s approval rating nosedived to an abysmal 16.7 percent, half the approval rating it received in an April survey. It is on par with the dismal approval rating for the 1989 Cabinet of Prime Minister Sousuke Uno, who, tainted by a sex scandal, presided over the least popular Liberal Democratic Party Cabinet ever. The disapproval rating for the Mori Cabinet was 66.2 percent.

Other major newspapers had reported similar rock-bottom ratings for the Mori Cabinet, amid growing public criticism of the prime minister’s inept remarks.

Mori failed to learn a lesson from the uproar he caused last month when he said, “Japan is a nation of gods, with the Emperor at its center.” Last week, he called for protection of the “national polity” (kokutai), an obsolete term that was used before and during World War II to refer to a national polity centering on the Emperor.

While Mori apologized for causing trouble with his “nation of gods” statement and with his use of the term “kokutai,” he refused to retract either remark.

Defending his statement that Japan is “a nation of gods with the Emperor at its center,” Mori said he was talking about the Emperor’s role as the nation’s symbol under the Constitution. But if that was the case, then why didn’t he speak of “the Emperor as Japan’s symbol”? Why did he mention “a nation of gods,” a term used only before the end of World War II?

Most people who heard Mori’s remarks have the impression that he was calling for the restoration of an absolute monarchy in “divine Japan.” People were angered when he refused to retract his remarks.

Then, in a lecture last week, Mori criticized the Japan Communist Party, which disapproves of the Imperial system, and asked, “How could we defend Japan’s national polity and ensure national security if such a party joined the government?”

Before the war ended, “kokutai” was used to refer to absolute rule by the Emperor under the old Constitution; it is obsolescent today. In those days, dissident thoughts and activities were suppressed. That was only the context in which the word was used. Few Japanese remember the word, which harkens back to the dark old days.

Mori again refused to retract his “kokutai” remark, which reminded me of rightist sound trucks broadcasting bizarre political slogans at top volume on busy streets. I would hate to think Mori is a rightist, but his refusal to retract his remarks raises fears that he entertains a similar ideology.

I have never seen such strong waves of public indignation caused by a prime minister’s remarks just before a national election, but the present situation could be a sign that the state of the Japanese electorate is healthy.

In the coming election, there is a possibility that Mori’s outrageous remarks will prompt unaffiliated voters, who have often abstained from voting in past elections, to flock to the polls and cause an upheaval in Japanese politics.

The coming election basically will be a contest between unaffiliated voters in Japan’s three major urban areas and supporters of the ruling coalition — LDP faithful and followers of Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist organization that backs New Komeito. The urban areas around Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya account for more than 70 percent of Japan’s population, gross national product and information transmission. In the 1998 Upper House election, urban voters handed a crushing setback to the LDP under then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

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