Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Cabinet suffered a serious blow Sunday with the resignation of transport minister Nariaki Nakayama, who was under fire for several gaffes, including saying Japan is “ethnically homogenous.”
Aso appointed former administrative reform minister Kazuyoshi Kaneko, 65, to succeed Nakayama.
Kaneko, a seven-term representative from the Gifu No. 4 district, served as state minister in charge of administrative reform from 2003 to 2004 under Junichiro Koizumi.
Nakayama stepped down from the post just four days after he was appointed as part of the new administration.
His miscues drew strong criticism from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito coalition as well as the opposition parties.
Nakayama’s quick departure could affect the timing of the Lower House election expected to take place in late October or early November.
“I have decided to resign because I could not bear the thought of Diet deliberations like the supplementary budget being delayed when there are so many people in trouble,” Nakayama said at a news conference in the morning. “I am most concerned about (my resignation negatively affecting the Cabinet), and if that is the case, I deserve to die.”
Aso expressed disappointment and apologized for Nakayama’s statements.
“I am awfully disappointed and I believe (Nakayama’s) statements were something that a normal minister would not say,” Aso said in the evening. “The weight of the importance of the emotions of a politician and the position of a minister, albeit the same politician, is different.”
Aso accepted responsibility for appointing Nakayama and said he would regain the public’s trust by making sure the new minister does his job well.
Aso said he appointed Kaneko to succeed Nakayama because of his knowledge on taxation, which will be necessary when freeing up road-related tax revenues for purposes other than just road construction.
“It is truly regrettable that Nakayama had to resign like this so soon after the formation of a Cabinet,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said. “Considering the circumstances, I think his resignation was unavoidable.”
From the time Aso appointed Nakayama on Wednesday, he repeatedly made contentious statements.
In an interview with The Japan Times and other media organizations Thursday, the conservative Nakayama said Japanese “do not like nor desire foreigners” and that Japan is inward-looking and “ethnically homogenous.”
Nakayama retracted the statements the following day and offered an apology to the ethnic Ainu, who were officially recognized as an indigenous people for the first time by the Diet in June.
He also blamed local residents, citing their lack of self-sacrifice, for the fitful expansion of Narita International Airport — another comment he was forced to retract.
Furthermore, Nakayama, a former education minister and longtime critic of Nikkyoso, Japan’s biggest union of teachers and school staff, said Saturday the organization is a “cancer” and that he would destroy it.
While Nakayama withdrew his other controversial statements, he remained defiant on his comments against Nikkyoso and stood by them during Sunday’s news conference.
“I hope (my statements) will be the start of thinking about education that is for the children, education that takes children into consideration,” Nakayama said.
He said he made Saturday’s remarks about Nikkyoso on purpose.
“I dared” to criticize Nikkyoso, he told the news conference. “I am truly grateful if you would explain (to the nation’s children) that minister Nakayama was the one who considered children even by sacrificing his own job.”
Nakayama said most teachers are working really hard. “But some are doing radical things,” he said.
Kawamura, the government’s top spokesperson and also a former education minister, said Nakayama had overstepped the bounds of his portfolio as the land, infrastructure, transport and tourism minister.
“I believe it is natural (for Nakayama) to have various principles and opinions as a politician,” Kawamura said. “But I think that he crossed the line and (education) is not in his jurisdiction.”
Aso was elected prime minister Wednesday to step in for the departing Yasuo Fukuda, but the new Cabinet has gotten off to a rocky start.
According to a recent Kyodo News survey, the support rate for the Cabinet was relatively low at 48.6 percent. The Fukuda Cabinet had 57.8 percent when it was launched.