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 neighbouring countries and human rights activists.
Mr Aso drew outrage for saying Japan should learn from how the Nazi party stealthily changed Germany's constitution before World War II before anyone realised it, and for suggesting that Japanese politicians avoid controversy by making quiet visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine.
Speaking to reporters, Mr 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," Mr Aso told reporters. "I would like to retract the remark about the Nazi regime."
Mr Aso, who is also deputy prime minister, made the comments about Nazi Germany during a speech Monday in Tokyo organised by an ultraconservative group.
Critics of the ruling Liberal Democrats are uneasy over the party's proposals for revising the US-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 colonising 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, Mr Aso decried the lack of support for revising Japan's pacifist constitution among older Japanese, saying the Liberal Democrats held quiet, extensive discussions about its proposals.
"I don't want to see this done in the midst of an uproar," Mr 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 realising 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."
Mr Aso often speaks in a meandering style that has got him in trouble for off-the-cuff remarks in the past. He has apologised 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.
Opposition leaders condemned Mr Aso's remarks, saying they showed a lack of understanding of history and hurt Japan's national interest. Some demanded Mr Aso resign.
In South Korea, foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said Mr Aso's remark "will obviously hurt many people."
"I believe Japanese political leaders should be more careful with their words and behaviour," Mr 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 neighbours in Asia, and the international community, have to heighten their vigilance over the direction of Japan's development."
"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 neighbours and the international community," he said.