Japan minister denies ties to hate speech group

Japanese cabinet minister Eriko Yamatani delivers a speech during a rally to support families of abduction victims by North Korea in Tokyo on Sept 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Japanese cabinet minister Eriko Yamatani delivers a speech during a rally to support families of abduction victims by North Korea in Tokyo on Sept 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - A Japanese cabinet minister did not know that people with whom she was photographed years ago belonged to a right-wing group now known for "hate speech" demos, a government spokesman said on Thursday.

It's the third recent case of politically embarrassing snapshots of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's new leadership line-up.

The photograph, taken in 2009, showed Eriko Yamatani, 63, who was appointed as National Public Safety Commission chairman earlier this month, with members of an ultra-right group known as "Zaitokukai", which opposes what it says are privileges for long-time Korean residents in Japan.

A government spokesman told a news conference that Yamatani said the photo was taken at an event marking Japan's claims to tiny South Korean-controlled islands, a row over which has been a factor in Tokyo's frayed ties with Seoul, and that she had been unaware of the people's affiliation with Zaitokukai.

"There are many people these days who have digital cameras and smart-phone cameras. When one is a politician as well known as Minister Yamatani, there are many people who want to take your picture and it is physically impossible to confirm in each case whether this person is ok but that one isn't," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko said.

"She said that she did not know that the people were related to Zaitokukai, so I do not think there is any problem."

Shigeo Masuki, who appeared in the photo with Yamatani and on whose website it had been posted, told Reuters he had known her for more than 10 years but had not told her that he belonged to Zaitokukai at the time of the photo. He said he had since left the group.

Zaitokukai members have in recent years taken part in demonstrations, including many in a Tokyo area home to many Korean shops. Some protesters called Koreans "cockroaches" and shouted "kill Koreans".

Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) policy chief Tomomi Inada, both close allies of the prime minister, acknowledged earlier this month that they had had their photos taken in 2011 with the head of a fringe neo-Nazi party. But they both said they were unaware of his extremist views when the pictures were taken.

Abe rejigged his cabinet and party leadership line-up in an effort to boost his popularity and bolster his base inside the Liberal Democratic Party. He appointed a record-tying five women to cabinet posts.

Several of the women are conservatives who favour visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

Like many of their male colleagues, they share Abe's agenda of recasting Japan's wartime history with a less apologetic tone and boosting national pride.

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have long been clouded by the legacy of Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.

Yamatani's portfolio also includes responsibility for the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea decades ago to help train spies.