Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Taro Aso is reported to have said that Japan should learn from how the Nazis managed to change Germany’s Weimar Constitution “without being noticed.”

The remarks aroused a furor as they suggested that he was a Nazi sympathizer and that he did not know or understand modern European history. He has retracted his remarks, but they are unlikely to be forgotten either in Japan or abroad.

Aso has made no secret of his right-wing nationalism. His continued membership of Abe’s Cabinet is a serious liability for the prime minister and makes many observers doubt the integrity of the government’s policies. If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe really intends to launch constitutional reform, Aso’s remarks must surely have set back any such initiative.

Aso’s remarks, apart from being inept and provocative, raise serious doubts about his judgement. They must also raise the question whether, with such a lack of common sense not to say a deficiency of historical understanding, he should remain in his present positions, where he is ostensibly responsible for overseeing the Japanese economic recovery by which Abe sets so much store and which is so important for Japan.

Abe’s government won a majority in the recent Upper House election because they concentrated on the economy not because of their nationalist rhetoric or because Abe has made it clear that he wants to see the Japanese constitution reformed.

A valid case can be made for modification of some of the clauses in the Constitution, but the arguments are complex, and any amendments need to be debated fully and not discussed in an atmosphere of nationalist hysteria. If changes are made and are not to arouse violent objection, the Japanese public must be fully consulted and minority views properly considered.

Foreign governments will be wary of seeming to intervene in what must be a matter for the Japanese government and people. But Japanese politicians should be aware that, in the light of the history of Japan in the first half of the 20th century, the world will be watching carefully how Japan tackles constitutional issues and will examine the proposals to see how they might affect the way in which Japanese democracy works. Any attempt to undermine human rights would certainly arouse serious foreign concerns.

Japanese moves to revise the Constitution have an impact on Japan’s image abroad. Japanese foot-in-mouth politicians such as Aso also damage Japan’s prestige, but Aso is not the first senior Liberal Democratic Party politician to make foolish and inept remarks. The hapless Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori commented that Japan was “a country of the gods with the Emperor at its center.” This suggested that he wanted Japan to go back to state Shinto and out-dated concepts such as that of the “kokutai” or “national essence” with all its nationalist overtones. Mori had to go and many hope that Aso will not last much longer in his present influential position.

When Abe came to Britain for the Group of Eight summit, he impressed observers by his apparent commitment to tackling Japan’s economic problems and indicated that he did not seek confrontation with Japan’s Asian neighbors. This created a good impression here. This favorable impression is, however, undermined by Aso’s remarks and will be further affected if nationalist extremism is not kept in check.

Particular attention will be focused on the behavior of members of Abe’s government on Aug. 15. It has been reported here that Abe does not intend to visit Yasukuni Shrine himself, but it is feared that Aso and at least some of his colleagues will do so. Such visits will inevitably be criticized in China and Korea. It would be a mistake on the part of the Japanese government to think that it will be ignored in the rest of the world.

Western governments are unlikely to say anything officially as this is a matter for the Japanese government, but the media will not be so forbearing. Japanese ministers may have forgotten their history and think that influential people in Western countries, who were born after the war ended, will not care one way or the other, but there are people with longer memories who will care. They may not want or be able to influence policy toward Japan, but Japan’s image does matter for Japan’s influence and prestige in the world. Friends of Japan abroad hope that Japanese ministers will show that they are sensitive to the feelings of other peoples.

The policies adopted by Japan in foreign affairs will rightly be dictated by an assessment of where Japan’s national interest lies. The problem often is that the short-term interest of politicians is not the same as the long-term national interest.

It is surely in Japan’s long-term interest to avoid actions that are likely to exacerbate feelings toward Japan and which detract from Japan’s most important objective of economic renewal.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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