Citing Adolf Hitler isn't a very good way to win an argument. Lots of people try — so many, in fact, that the internet has come up with a rule for Hitler references. Godwin's Law, as it's called, dictates that the first person to compare his or her verbal sparring partner to the Nazi leader automatically loses the argument.
If the Japanese come up with their own version of Godwin's Law, it will probably be named after Taro Aso, the island nation's deputy prime minister and finance minister. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for Japan to amend its pacifist, U.S.-drafted constitution (which was adopted after World War II), and Aso on Monday offered this suggestion on how to do it:
"The German Weimar constitution changed, without being noticed, to the Nazi German constitution. Why don't we learn from their tactics?"
What "techniques" from the Nazis' governance are worth learning — how to stealthily cripple democracy?... 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? The only lessons on governance that the world should draw from the Nazi Third Reich is how those in positions of power should not behave. [Wiesenthal Center]
Reiji Yoshida at The Japan Times has a more sympathetic take on Aso's remarks, noting that the deputy prime minister said in his speech that the constitution should be amended "based on public opinions that carefully examined the situation," and not in an "uproar" or "frenzy." Since that contradicts Aso's later statement about the Nazis, Yoshida says, it "may simply have been just more sarcasm over Japanese rushing to amend the constitution." Aso "often uses sarcastic, intricate rhetoric when he criticizes somebody," he adds.
That's basically the excuse Aso used on Thursday when he walked back his remarks. "I would like to retract the use of the Nazi government as an example," he told reporters. "If my entire statement is read, it should be clear that I look very negatively at Nazi Germany."
That doesn't change the fact that Aso's remarks were appalling, says the Vox Populi, Vox Dei columnist in Japan's Asahi Shimbun. "I cannot understand Aso's mindset that cites the Nazis, a power group that committed indescribably horrible crimes, as an example." Even if he meant to say that we should cool down and discuss the constitutional changes in a calm manner, "why does he have to go out of his way to use such an inappropriate expression?" Vox Populi then gives us a history lesson:
The regime of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) took advantage of a functional failure in the parliament to take over the nation. It suppressed opposition forces and created a law, called the Enabling Act, which made it possible for the government to do whatever it liked. Could the Nazi constitution that Aso referred to be that law? Later, the situation led to war and the Holocaust. [Asahi Shimbun]
At The Associated Press, Mari Yamaguchi and Elaine Kurtenbach remind us why the Japanese, in particular, need to be careful with their Nazi references:
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 military aggression, which included colonizing the Korean Peninsula before the war, is the reason its current constitution limits the role of the military. [AP]
There's some irony in the fact that it is Aso who ensnared himself in this mess, say Mitsuru Obe and Paul Baylis at The Wall Street Journal. With time spent studying abroad at Stanford and London University, Aso "is regarded as one of the few internationally minded politicians of his generation." Like his U.S. counterpart, Vice President Joe Biden, however, Aso probably "talks too much and blurts things out without checking the facts."
Aso's remarks were damaging enough that the prime minister's spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, also felt it necessary to denounce them. The Abe administration "in no way views the Nazi regime in any positive manner," Suga said, and since World War II, Japan "has contributed globally by consistently defending peace and human rights, and that principle remains unchanged."
"What also seems unchanged," say The Wall Street Journal's Obe and Baylis, "is the tendency of some Japanese politicians to make puzzling, sometimes offensive remarks."