Abe says sorry, taking heat for gaffes by ministers

From left: Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda made remarks seen as belittling the disadvantaged in society; Defence Minister Taro Kono seemingly made light of typhoon victims and; Mr Isshu Sugawara stepped down as economy minister for breaking the ele
From left: Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda made remarks seen as belittling the disadvantaged in society; Defence Minister Taro Kono seemingly made light of typhoon victims and; Mr Isshu Sugawara stepped down as economy minister for breaking the election law.

Just a month after he reshuffled his Cabinet, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has had to apologise for insensitive gaffes made by two ministers, and replace a third who was effectively sacked last week for breaking the election law.

Mr Abe apologised yesterday to Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi - who leads Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - as the snowballing political scandals drew opprobrium across party lines.

Both Defence Minister Taro Kono, who seemingly made light of typhoon victims, and Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda, who made remarks seen as downplaying inequality and denying meritocracy, have likewise said sorry to Mr Abe for their comments.

The faux pas came as Mr Isshu Sugawara, the newly appointed Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry, stepped down last Friday over allegations that his office gave cash and expensive gifts like melons and crabs to his voters.

He was the ninth minister to resign since Mr Abe took power in 2012, and the Premier said last Friday that the "responsibility lies with me for having appointed him".

Mr Sugawara was replaced by Mr Hiroshi Kajiyama, who is in charge of enforcing Japan's controls on exports to South Korea and is its point man for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership talks.

Mr Abe vowed to right the ship in his apology yesterday, calling on his ministers to "be very careful with the way they speak and act".

On Monday, Mr Kono quipped at a party fund-raiser that he was living up to his name as a "rainmaker" as Japan has been hit by three strong typhoons since he assumed his post.

The typhoons caused widespread devastation across large areas of eastern Japan and killed more than 100 people this month.

Mr Kono's flippant comment was slammed as inconsiderate and insensitive, both within and outside the LDP.

In the other scandal, Mr Hagiuda had implied that students from poor families or rural regions should just accept being disadvantaged by a new English language requirement for university entrance exams.

Under requirements beginning in April next year, third-year senior high students must take two privately run English tests that will count towards their university admission applications.

Each exam costs between 5,800 yen (S$70) and 25,850 yen.

The fact that students are allowed to take as many "practice tests" as they like has drawn flak. Poorer families will not be able to afford as many trial runs, while those in rural regions will not get access to as many exams as their urban peers.

"It's the same as calling your friend who goes to an exam preparation school a cheat for doing so," Mr Hagiuda had said. "People should choose to compete for university places in accordance with their standing."

He retracted the statement yesterday, saying it was never his intention to belittle the disadvantaged in society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2019, with the headline 'Abe says sorry, taking heat for gaffes by ministers'. Print Edition | Subscribe