TV & Radio
Cabinet minister remarks give Japan PM a headache
By Linda Sieg
Mon Jan 29, 1:31 AM ET
First, his defense minister risks offending Japan's key ally, the United States, by calling the start of the Iraq war a "mistake." Then, his health minister sparks a domestic fuss by calling women "birth-giving machines."
Gaffes by cabinet ministers are giving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a political headache when his support ratings are already slipping due to doubts about his leadership ability -- hardly cheering ahead of an upper house election in July.
"I want to make clear that our cabinet is not allowing people to just say what they want," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference on Monday at which he was bombarded with questions about the comments by the two ministers.
Abe came under fire when he took office in September for creating a 'crony cabinet" of lawmakers who had supported his bid to become prime minister. Now, some critics say his choices are coming back to haunt him.
"These people are not media savvy. They are feudal warlords who voice their frank opinions," said Jesper Koll, chief economist at Merrill Lynch in Tokyo. "He put them in the cabinet ... and now he's stuck with them."
Abe told parliament he had given a strong warning to Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa about his "inappropriate" phrase, and Yanagisawa himself apologized for "hurting women's feelings."
Yanagisawa, 71, had been speaking to local lawmakers about Japan's rock-bottom birth rate, which has raised concerns about economic growth and the ability to fund ballooning pension costs.
"Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head, although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines," Kyodo quoted Yanagisawa as saying.
Defense MINISTER REMARKS
Shiozaki was also grilled about the latest controversial remarks by Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma, who last week said President Bush had been wrong to start the Iraq war on the assumption that Baghdad had nuclear weapons.
Kyuma was quoted as saying on Saturday that Washington didn't understand the need for "spadework" to win approval from the governor of Okinawa to relocate a U.S. military base on the southern Japanese island in line with a U.S.-Japan agreement.
"I am telling (the U.S. side) not to say such patronizing things, that I am talking to the governor, so please wait a bit and leave Japanese matters to Japan," Kyuma was quoted as saying.
Shiozaki acknowledged that U.S. officials had contacted Japanese authorities to check on Kyuma's comments about the Iraq war, but added there had not been any criticism.
The fuss over cabinet ministers' remarks coincides with new public opinion polls underscoring the decline in Abe's popularity.
Support for his cabinet fell six points to 40 percent, while that for his Liberal Democratic Party dropped six points to 25 percent, according to a weekend survey by the Mainichi newspaper.
Still, the main opposition Democratic Party -- which is aiming to deprive the ruling coalition of its majority in the upper house -- could take little consolation from the results, which showed its support rate fell four points to 13 percent.
The percentage of voters who said they backed no party at all rose 10 points to 49 percent, the newspaper said.
A defeat in the upper house election would not automatically force Abe from office, but it would raise doubts about the longevity of his administration.
(Additional reporting by George Nishiyama and Chisa Fujioka)