TOKYO — Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso has retracted comments suggesting Japan should follow the Nazi example of how to change the country's constitution, following protests by neighboring countries and human rights activists.
Aso drew outrage for saying Japan should learn from how the Nazi party stealthily changed Germany's constitution before World War II before anyone realized it, and for suggesting that Japanese politicians should avoid controversy by making quiet visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine.
Speaking to reporters, Aso said Thursday that he was misunderstood and only meant to say that loud debate over whether Japan should change its postwar constitution, and other issues, is not helpful.
"It is very unfortunate and regrettable that my comment regarding the Nazi regime was misinterpreted," Aso told reporters. "I would like to retract the remark."
Aso, who is also deputy prime minister, made the comments about Nazi Germany during a speech Monday in Tokyo organized by an ultra-conservative group.
Critics of the ruling Liberal Democrats are uneasy over the party's proposals for revising the U.S.-inspired postwar constitution, in part to allow a higher profile for Japan's military.
Japan and Nazi Germany were allies in World War II, when Japan occupied much of Asia and Germany much of Europe, where the racial supremacist Nazis oversaw the killings of an estimated 6 million Jews before the war ended in 1945 with their defeat. Japan's history of military aggression, which included colonizing the Korean Peninsula before the war, is the reason its current constitution limits the role of the military.
According to a transcript of the speech published by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, Aso decried the lack of support for revising Japan's pacifist constitution among older Japanese, saying the Liberal Democrats had held quiet, extensive discussions about its proposals.
"I don't want to see this done in the midst of an uproar," Aso said, according to the transcript. Since revisions of the constitution may raise protests, "doing it quietly, just as in one day the Weimar constitution changed to the Nazi constitution, without anyone realizing it, why don't we learn from that sort of tactic?"
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe "in no way looks positively at the Nazi regime. Since the end of the war (World War II), our nation has consistently built up a society which thoroughly advocates peace and human rights."
"This direction remains unchanged, going forward," he added.
Aso often speaks in a meandering style that has gotten him in trouble for off-the-cuff remarks in the past. He has apologized previously for accusing the elderly of being a burden on society, joking about people with Alzheimer's disease, saying the ideal country would be one that attracts "the richest Jewish people," and comparing the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to the Nazis.
On Thursday, Aso insisted that he was referring to the Nazis "as a bad example of a constitutional revision that was made without national understanding or discussion."
"If you listen to the context, it is clear that I have a negative view of how the Weimar constitution got changed by the Nazi regime," he said.
"This is a constitution for all," Aso said. "I just don't want (the revision) to be decided amid a ruckus."
The Nazis' rise to power in the early 1930s amid the economic crisis brought on by the Great Depression was facilitated by emergency decrees that circumvented the Weimar constitution. So was Adolph Hitler's seizure of absolute power after he was made chancellor in 1933.
It was not a matter of revising but of abusing the constitution.
Opposition leaders condemned Aso's remarks, saying they showed a lack of understanding of history and hurt Japan's national interest. Some demanded Aso resign.
Aso's comments "sounded like praise for Nazi actions and are totally incomprehensible," said Akihiro Ohata, secretary general of the Democratic Party.
"Minister Aso's ignorance about historical facts is so obvious," said Seiji Mataichi, secretary general of the Social Democratic Party. "I also want to remind him that praising the Nazis is considered a crime in EU nations."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a group dedicated to keeping alive the history of the Holocaust, urged Aso to "immediately clarify" his remarks.
"What `techniques' from the Nazis' governance are worth learning? How to stealthily cripple democracy?" Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement.
"Has Vice Prime Minister Aso forgotten that Nazi Germany's ascendancy to power quickly brought the world to the abyss and engulfed humanity in the untold horrors of World War II?"
In South Korea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said Aso's remark "will obviously hurt many people."
"I believe Japanese political leaders should be more careful with their words and behavior," Cho said.
In China, which also suffered invasion and occupation by Japanese imperial troops before and during the war, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the comments showed that "Japan's neighbors in Asia, and the international community, have to heighten their vigilance over the direction of Japan's development."
Hong also objected to Aso's comments on visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's 2.3 million war dead, including 14 wartime leaders convicted of war crimes.
Aso urged lawmakers in his speech to visit the shrine at times other than the closely watched anniversary of the end of the war on Aug. 15 to avoid diplomatic flare-ups.
"We demand that Japan seriously contemplate history, remain committed to promises it made on historical issues, and take concrete actions to win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community," Hong said.