The other night at my local sushi bar conversation turned to Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s comments about constitutional revision — specifically, his suggestion there is something to be learned from the way the Nazis revised the Weimar Constitution in 1933.

The person next to me suddenly switched to English and, with bowed head, said, “He is our shame.” Down the bar, a retired banker opined, “Aso doesn’t know his own mind or what he wants to say — and the sad thing about Japan is that people like him become our political leaders. They have no idea about leadership and they harm Japan’s interests.”

Based on differing versions and varying translations of Aso’s speech, there has been considerable debate about what exactly he said and meant.

The Japanese media reported Aso saying, “Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed before anyone noticed. It was changed before anyone was aware. Why don’t we learn from that technique.” The Wall Street Journal reported that Aso’s office confirmed these comments.

He also made an explicit reference (caught on video) to the “Nazi constitution” and implied that the stealthy means by which Adolf Hitler managed to change the constitution in Germany carries lessons for Japan’s constitutional revision advocates.

Aso, who is also the minister of finance, went on to suggest that revision should be realized without a raucous public debate.

His speech was hosted by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a conservative think tank that favors revising the Constitution and is run by reactionary pundit Yoshiko Sakurai.

The institute’s website explains, “The current Japanese Constitution was written with malice and vengeance by the occupying force in the aftermath of World War II in a way that denied the Japanese history, cultures and traditions almost completely so that Japan could never rise again from the ashes of the war.” (But then why has postwar Japan been so successful and why are most Japanese satisfied with the war-renouncing Constitution?)

But let’s examine Aso’s comments.

First, there was no “Nazi constitution,” and the manner in which the Nazis sidestepped the Weimar Constitution in 1933 was far from subtle. For example, paramilitary thugs known as Brownshirts went around intimidating, beating and killing leftists. The Reichstag (parliament building) was razed in February 1933 with the blame dubiously pinned on a communist. That fire became the pretext for invoking Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to declare a state of emergency.

The Reichstag Fire Decree allowed the suspension of the constitution and permitted the president to rule by decree temporarily. Problematically, Article 48 was invoked numerous times in the early 1930s to pass legislation in a fractious parliament, and it became a substitute for representative democracy. (It’s worth noting that the 2012 draft Constitution, and specifically its Article 98 and Article 99 as proposed by the Liberal Democratic Party, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads, grants similar powers to declare a state of emergency and suspend constitutional rights.)

By invoking Article 48, the German government did away with constitutional rights, including habeas corpus, freedoms of expression and of the press, citizens’ right of assembly and the privacy of communications. Constitutional restrictions on searches and confiscation of property were also suspended.

Subsequently, in March 1933, Hitler pushed through legislation that meant he no longer needed to consult with the parliament at all and could rule by decree.

So the Weimar Constitution was bypassed, not revised — and Hitler also abolished other political parties. Then in 1934 he instigated the Night of Long Knives, a murderous purge of his critics and rivals. Thus was the Third Reich born.

So one wonders exactly what lessons Aso wants his fellows to learn from this example of constitutional chicanery and malevolent political thuggery.

I don’t think Aso subscribes to Nazi ideology, but his comments opened him to accusations of being sympathetic toward the Nazis — though he belatedly retracted them. (One friend insists, “He may be a buffoon, but he’s not a moron.”)

The imbroglio even forced Abe to deny that his government admires Nazi ideology and to state that it will refrain from giving any such impression again. As a rule of thumb, when a government feels compelled to distance itself from Nazism, it’s a bad sign.

I was ready to nominate Aso as King of Gaffes, but Robert Whiting, best-selling author on Japanese baseball and yakuza, told me, “He is simply carrying on a long tradition of political tone deafness in Japan that dates back, for me at least, to my student days in the 1960s when, in the midst of a scandal over polluted agricultural products, an LDP Cabinet minister urged Japanese to eat cadmium-tainted rice as their patriotic duty.

“If there was a Hall of Fame, or should I say Hall of Infamy, in Japan for gaffe-prone politicians, Aso would have to wait his turn to be inducted behind (prominent nationalist Shintaro) Ishihara, (former Prime Minister Yoshiro) Mori, (former power broker Ichiro) Ozawa and a long line of others.”

Personally, I am ready to fast-track him.

Aso deserves kudos from progressives because he has done irreparable damage to the forces favoring constitutional revision by indelibly linking them with Nazi Germany. As a result, he will probably be heaved from the Cabinet in the coming reshuffle.

Abe must be livid that Hitler now casts a shadow over his pet project. No matter how you parse Aso’s speech, it is damaging. Apologists assert that actually Aso was somehow lacking sufficient patriotic zeal and warning against historical revisionism and visits to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, but Fred Ulemann, translator of “Rethinking the Constitution: An Anthology of Japanese Opinion” (2008), replies, “It is amazing that there are dogs calling for a louder whistle when Aso is telling his people to move a little more quietly.”

Ironically, at an anti-revision symposium held at Sophia University in Tokyo in June, constitutional scholar Yoichi Higuchi said, “The Nazis ignored the Weimar Constitution, which declared the sovereignty of the people, by arguing that it was pressed upon Germany ‘due to its defeat in World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.’ ” Higuchi added that Japan today has similarities to the Weimar Republic, where political decisions could not be made due to a lack of leadership. And Abe-visionists denigrate the postwar Constitution as being “imposed” (by the United States).

Aso’s comments also suggest that Japan’s conservative politicians are wary of democracy. He supports a values-oriented diplomacy — recall the ill-fated Arc of Freedom and Prosperity launched in 2006, extolling the virtues of democracy in Asia. However, he seems ambivalent about practicing what he preaches. He counsels quiet constitutional revision and quiet visits to Yasukuni, implying that boisterous public discourse is unwelcome.

Hello; welcome to democracy dude!

Aso’s remarks constitute an inadvertent admission that Japanese reactionaries realize their ideological agenda doesn’t resonate with the Japanese public. Apparently, his advice is being heeded. Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura recently confided that he has visited Yasukuni on the sly since joining the Cabinet. But if he can’t keep a secret, what’s the point?

More importantly, as Abe doesn’t have the numbers in the Diet to revise the Constitution constitutionally, he is taking a backroom approach. The Cabinet Legislative Bureau provides the government with interpretations of the Constitution that determine what is constitutional.

The CLB has long played a crucial role in “revising” the Constitution without going through the messy, noisome procedures of parliamentary democracy. However, as the current director opposes Abe’s desire to embrace the right of collective self-defense, he is being “promoted” to the Supreme Court and being replaced by an official who supports Abe’s position.

And thus is constitutional revision proceeding by stealth as Abe and amenable bureaucrats take matters into their own hands to loosen constitutional constraints on Japan’s military.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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