Japan PM Abe says sorry, taking heat for gaffes by defence, education and trade ministers

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on his ministers to "be very careful with the way they speak and act".
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on his ministers to "be very careful with the way they speak and act".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - 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 made the apology on Tuesday (Oct 29) to Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi - who leads Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling 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 Cabinet 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 (RCEP) negotiations.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, when asked if the three scandals showed that the Cabinet had slackened off, told a regular news conference: "Each Cabinet member must be self-aware and make an effort to secure people's trust."

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

 
 

In one of the scandals, Mr Kono quipped at a party fundraiser on Monday that he is living up to his name as a "rainmaker" as Japan has been hit by three strong typhoons since he assumed his post.

The typhoons - including Typhoon Hagibis which was designated by Tokyo as an "extraordinary disaster" on Tuesday - caused widespread devastation across large areas of eastern Japan and killed more than 100 people this month.

Mr Kono's flippant comment, made in jest as he sought to bring attention to Self-Defence Force personnel who have worked endlessly to provide relief to the disaster-hit areas, was slammed as inconsiderate and insensitive both within and outside the LDP.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi said: "A politician must refrain from doing things that cause pain to victims in disaster-hit areas."

Mr Jun Azumi of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said: "I can't believe that (Kono) would consider this a topic that can be joked about."

In the other scandal, Education Minister Hagiuda had implied that students from poor families or rural regions should just accept their fate of being disadvantaged because of a new English language requirement for university entrance exams.

Under requirements that will begin in April next year, third-year senior high students must take two privately-run English tests that will be counted towards their university admission applications. Each exam costs between 5,800 yen (S$73) and 25,850 yen (S$324).

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, in remarks slammed as unbefitting of an education minister. "Children from wealthy households may be able to warm up for these tests by practising multiple times, but people should choose to compete for university places in accordance with their standing."

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