TOKYO • Japan’s success against the coronavirus without having to enforce a strict lockdown is due to its citizens’ “cultural standard” which is different from that in other nations, Finance Minister Taro Aso said, drawing criticism from the public that the comments were inappropriate.
“Other countries have called me up and asked me if we’re the only ones with some drug against the virus or something,” Mr Aso said on Thursday in response to a question from a lawmaker on Japan’s success in containing the outbreak.
“When I tell them ‘our country’s cultural standard levels are different to yours’, they’re left speechless. That’s the simplest way to put an end to the questions.”
Mr Aso’s remarks, which elicited laughs at the meeting, were made in the context of Japan’s inability to enforce a hard lockdown due to civil liberties enshrined in the post-war Constitution.
Japanese officials were able only to ask people to stay home and businesses to close, though the level of cooperation was high.
Despite the lack of harsh measures, Japan suffered far fewer coronavirus cases than any of its Group of Seven peers, with about seven deaths per million, a track record that Mr Aso noted in his comments.
But Japan is not an exception in Asia, with Taiwan and South Korea reporting lower mortality rates.
Not everyone agreed with how Mr Aso framed his comments, with his words striking some as inappropriate, particularly in the light of the ongoing protests in the United States against police brutality and racism.
“That’s exactly the thing you shouldn’t say at this time,” said renowned neurologist and author Kenichiro Mogi on Twitter.
Dr Kentaro Iwata, a Japanese infectious diseases expert who made global headlines for criticising the bureaucrats’ handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship case in February, seemed exasperated in his response, saying: “Well, of course they would be speechless.”
Opposition politician Renho Murata also blasted the remarks: “Who do you think you are, Minister Aso? I don’t want you commenting to the world as Japan’s Finance Minister.”
The backlash caused Mr Aso to explain his remarks yesterday.
The comments were meant to say that Japan should be proud that it was able to fight the virus without any coercion, when some other nations struggled to do so even with stricter controls, he said, adding that the remarks were not meant to disparage other nations.
Mr Aso, a frank speaker who is also Deputy Prime Minister, is known for his gaffes and has survived multiple verbal blunders in his political career.
In the past, he has remarked that Japan could learn from the Nazis about how to change the Constitution, been criticised for his response to a sexual harassment case within his own ministry, and said that people not having children are raising the burden on welfare.