Japan’s deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, who has a long history of making bizarre and inflammatory public statements, has retracted a comment that appeared to praise the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. During a speech to a conservative political group on Monday, Aso discussed possible revisions to the Japanese constitution. “Germany’s Weimar constitution was changed before anyone realized,” Aso said, according to Japanese media. “It was altered before anyone was aware. Why don’t we learn from that technique?”

The Weimar Constitution governed Germany from the end of World War I until 1933, when Hitler was appointed chancellor. During that inter-war period – i.e., the ‘Weimar Republic – the constitution guaranteed that Germany would be a democratic parliamentary state. Under the Nazi Third Reich (1933-1945), the Weimar Constitution was essentially abolished by the Nazis, although technically it remained in effect during the Hitler era.

Thus, Aso was apparently suggesting that changes could also be made to Japan’s constitution, perhaps to strengthen the power of the state, without the public noticing. The Japan Times reported that Aso’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (which despite its name is a right-wing conservative party), wants particularly to revise the pacifist constitution in order to give Tokyo expanded military cooperation powers under the premise of the “right of collective self-defense.”

Specifically, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution currently states: “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes ... land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Under this Article, Japan is thus prohibited from using any military force, except in self-defense. “The purpose of constitutional revision should be the stabilization and peace of the state. Constitutional revision is a just means,” Aso also said at the Monday lecture.

Aso, who also serves as Japan’s finance minister and held the post of prime minister a few years ago, was condemned by both Jewish groups in the United States as well as by South Korea and China. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which hunts down Nazi war criminals, urged Aso to clarify his remarks. “What ‘techniques’ from the Nazis’ governance are worth learning -- how to stealthily cripple democracy?” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, in a statement. “Has … 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 are how those in positions of power should not behave.”

South Korea, which suffered from Japan’s brutal occupation until 1945, also reacted harshly to Aso’s statements. “Such remarks definitely hurt many people,” said Cho Tai-young, a spokesman for the South Korean foreign ministry, according to the Yonhap news agency. “It is clear what such comments on the [Nazi] regime mean to people of the time and to those who suffered from Japan’s imperialistic invasion.”

China also blasted Aso. "We demand the Japanese side reflect on its history, fulfill its commitments on historical issues, and win the trust of Asian neighbors and the international community through concrete actions," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

In the wake of uproar, Aso tried to explain to reporters in Tokyo what he meant by his remarks, suggesting his words were misconstrued. “I pointed to the changes to the Weimar constitution made under the Nazi regime as a bad example of changes made without a substantial debate or understanding by the citizens,” he said. “I invited misunderstanding as a result and I would like to withdraw the statement in which I cited the Nazi regime as an example.” He added: "It is clear from all my remarks that I have an extremely negative view of the events involving the Nazis and the Weimar constitution."

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, also sought to distance the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from such remarks. “I want to stress that the Abe administration does not perceive the Nazi Germany in a positive light,” Suga said at a regular news conference.

However, Abe, whose party now controls both houses of parliament, has expressed his desire to re-evaluate the Japanese military’s role, given a new and challenging security climate in the Pacific region. The prime minister has suggested that he wants limitations on Japan’s military eased, a measure vociferously opposed by both China and South Korea (given the brutal invasions they suffered by Japan’s once powerful imperial army). And, most notably, imperial Japan was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II. 

As for Aso, this is not the first time he has put his foot in his mouth. As the descendant of a powerful mining family that used forced laborers during Japan’s occupation of Korea, his background often comes into play when reflecting on his apparently insensitivity. Earlier this year Aso offered a novel suggestion for reducing Japan’s massive debt crisis -- kill off elderly people quickly in order to save the government from making costly health care expenditures. Aso told a meeting of the National Council on Social Security Reforms: "Heaven forbid if you are forced to live on when you want to die. You cannot sleep well when you think it's all paid by the government. This won't be solved unless you let them hurry up and die.” He added: "I don't need that kind of care. I will die quickly.”

Reportedly, he referred to elderly folks who cannot feed themselves as “tube people,” adding that the health and welfare ministry is "well aware that it costs several tens of millions of yen" every month to treat one patient during the final days of his life. "I said what I personally believe, not what the end-of-life medical care system should be," he told reporters. "It is important that you can spend the final days of your life peacefully." But it is unlikely that Aso's comments will be forgotten in a country where the aged are venerated and the aged are also becoming a significant part of the population. 

In 2001, he said that Japan should seek to become a country where "the richest Jews would want to live." That same year, he sparked outrage by making disparaging remarks about prime minister candidate Hiromu Nonaka, who is part of the Burakumin outcaste group, suggesting he was unqualified for such high office due to his background. In 2005, during a ceremony at the Kyushu National Museum, Aso boasted that Japan has "one culture, one civilization, one language and one ethnic group.”

Over the years he also praised Japan’s brutal colonial occupation of Taiwan. which he said explains why the country now has such high literacy rates. Aso, one of the wealthiest Japanese politicians, is a veritable blueblood – indeed, he is the grandson of legendary Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who steered Japan in the post-World War II period. Aso’s wife, Chikako, is the daughter of Prime Minister Zenkō Suzuki, who reigned in the early 1980s.

Additionally, the Roman Catholic Aso is the elder brother of Princess Tomohito of Mikasa, a member of the Japanese Imperial Family.