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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Japan’s former PM, 83-year-old Aso, piles insults on female foreign minister

A Japanese former prime minister and vice-president of the ruling Liberal Democratic party has been accused of sexism after making insulting comments about the foreign minister’s appearance and age.

“She’s not that good looking,” Taro Aso, who has a long history of inappropriate remarks, said of Yoko Kamikawa during a recent speech, before awkwardly praising her abilities as a politician. “But she speaks with dignity, speaks properly in English and makes appointments with people she needs to see on her own, without help from diplomats.”

Aso, who is 83, also referred to Kamikawa, 70, as obasan – a commonly used word for middle-aged women that some regard as derogatory.

Aso also twice got her surname wrong – calling her Kamimura – and incorrectly suggested she was Japan’s first female foreign minister. In fact, she is the third, after Makiko Tanaka and Yoriko Kawaguchi, who were appointed during the administration of Junichiro Koizumi in the early 2000s.

Kamikawa, who became one of five women appointed to prime minister Fumio Kishida’s cabinet in September last year, brushed off Aso’s comments.

“I’m aware that there are many different opinions, and I appreciate any and all feedback,” she told reporters, adding that continuing her work as Japan’s most senior diplomat was the most appropriate response to Aso.

Opposition politicians were critical of Aso, who has held senior positions in LDP administrations since serving as prime minister for less than a year before the party was voted out of office in 2009 for first time in more than half a century.

Akira Koike, secretary general of the Japanese Communist party, said the comments were objectionable, even by Aso’s low standards. “This one is the worst,” Koike told reporters, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Some social media users called on Aso to resign.

Kaku Sechiyama, a professor of gender studies at the University of Tokyo, told the Asahi: “I understand [Aso] appreciates Kamikawa, but if he were talking about a male foreign minister, he would never mention his appearance. Only women are subjected to an additional evaluation of their attractiveness.”

Aso, who is rumoured to be a billionaire, is known for his fashion sense and ill-informed views on entire groups of people. In May 2018, as finance minister, he said there was “no such thing as the crime of sexual harassment” after a senior ministry official was accused of sexually harassing a female TV reporter. Aso also speculated that the official had been “set up” by his victim.

He has insulted elderly people, blue-eyed diplomats, Alzheimer’s patients and women who choose not to have children, and has expressed admiration for the Nazis, describing Adolf Hitler as “having the right motives”.

During the second world war, Aso’s family’s coal mining business used Allied PoW as slave labourers. Aso was president of the firm’s successor, Aso Cement, for most of the 1970s but has refused to apologise for its past use of forced labour.

Japan performs badly in international comparisons of female political representation, ranking 165th out of 190 countries, with women comprising just 10.3% of lower house MPs, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Aso is not the only senior Japanese politician to make sexist remarks. Upon appointing Kamikawa and her female colleagues to his cabinet last year, Kishida told them he hoped they would “demonstrate the sensitivity and empathy that are unique to women”.

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