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Social network gaffes plague Japanese politicians

Thursday - 6/20/2013, 8:22am  ET

In this Thursday, June 13, 2013 photo, Reconstruction Vice Minister Koichi Tani, left, and the ministry director-general Masakatsu Okamoto stand at a press conference as they apologize on the ministry's senior official in charge of helping victims of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear crisis Yasuhiro Mizuno, not shown, at the ministry in Tokyo. These are perilous times for Japanese politicians who are increasingly using social media to voice their opinions and rally support - sometimes with awkward or potentially costly repercussions. In the latest flap over opinions shared or reported over social media, Mizuno was dismissed last week after he used a vulgarity to deride civil activists. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, CREDIT MANDATORY

MARI YAMAGUCHI
Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) -- On the Internet, no one can save you from yourself. That is a lesson many Japanese politicians have learned recently in painful, awkward and at times costly fashion.

In the latest flap, a senior reconstruction official in charge of helping victims of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear crisis was dismissed last week after he used a scatological insult on Twitter to deride civil activists.

Another official's loss of composure at a U.N. committee meeting might have gone unnoticed in another time, but today it's on YouTube. Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been reproached for remarks on Facebook that some deemed disrespectful to his opponents.

Japan only began allowing use of social media in political campaigns in April. As campaigning heats up for a pivotal July 21 election for the upper house of parliament, this relatively new tool for reaching the public appears as much a liability as it is a blessing.

Japanese politicians and government agencies control access to information through a system of press clubs, and to keep their memberships, traditional Japanese media often have overlooked politicians' gaffes. Politicians' aides also help them avoid making embarrassing comments on TV and in print media. But those filters disappear when a politician posts a comment online.

"It takes only one emotional sentence. Once you hit the comment or tweet button, it's too late. You're caught by gaffe watchers on the net, with your true nature exposed," said Junichiro Nakagawa, an editor at the Internet news site Shunkan Research News.

Yasuhisa Mizuno, the former Reconstruction Agency official for Fukushima-Dai-ichi victims, was fired over this tweet: "Attended a meeting where I was merely yelled at by leftist (vulgarity). Surprisingly, I'm not outraged. I only have pity for their lack of intelligence."

He posted the comment March 7, but it was overlooked for several weeks before "gaffe watchers" discovered it and made it more widely known.

In late May, Hideaki Ueda, Japan's representative to the United Nations' committee on torture, shouted while defending Japan's judicial system against criticism by an envoy from Mauritius who said its lack of protections for suspects' rights was "medieval."

Speaking in somewhat broken English in footage shown on YouTube and an official website, Ueda said, "Certainly Japan is not the Middle Age. We are one of the most advanced country in the field."

To giggles from the audience, he shouted, "Don't laugh! Why you are laughing?"

"Shut up! Shut up!" he said. By Wednesday the video had been viewed on YouTube more than 200,000 times. The footage was also repeatedly shown on mainstream Japanese TV and in newspapers until the Foreign Ministry reprimanded him last week.

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said and tweeted that sex slavery by Japan's Imperial Army before and during World War II was a "necessary" wartime evil. He also used Twitter to post his suggestion that the U.S. military patronize adult entertainment to help reduce sex crimes committed by American troops.

U.S. officials characterized the comments as "outrageous and offensive." Hashimoto, a co-founder of the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, apologized, but only for his adult entertainment remark. He has continued tweeting his assertions about the Imperial Army's use of prostitutes.

Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano said gaffes by politicians and others spotlight a lack of sensitivity to a variety of issues, and to opposing views.

"The society that leaves such problems unchecked could become one that is insensitive," Nakano said. "People gradually lose sensitivity and then think nothing of it anymore."

One word that has drawn attention is "leftist," which is being used as a catch-all term for liberals supportive of minority rights and pacifism, and who sometimes challenge conservative values.

The media and the political opposition are taking Abe to task for using the term too casually. Abe has also called former Prime Minister Naoto Kan a leftist, criticizing his civil activist background and relatively lenient stance toward North Korea.

Abe, who is known for his nationalist and hawkish views, complained in a recent Facebook entry about hecklers at a public rally. "A group of leftists came into the crowd, intensely trying to interfere with my speech by shouting into a loudspeaker and banging drums, full of hatred," he wrote

"Mr. Abe, what do you mean by 'leftists?'" asked Hideo Matsushita, senior editor at the liberal-leaning Asahi newspaper, in a commentary published Sunday.

Many of the hundreds of comments attached to Abe's Facebook entry expressed support for his remark, along with hatred of the political left, ethnic Koreans and China. But others questioned for using the word "leftists" to describe hecklers who were apparently opposing Abe's plans to join a U.S.-led trans-Pacific trade bloc.

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