Photo/Illutration Mio Sugita at a session of the Upper House Budget Committee on Dec. 2 (The Asahi Shimbun)

Mio Sugita, the parliamentary vice minister for internal affairs and communications, has apologized for uttering discriminatory remarks in the past and retracted some of them. But she only did so at the behest of her boss. It is hard to believe she truly regrets her outbursts. She clearly is not fit for office. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s continued attempts to defend her raise serious questions about his own stance toward the issue.

In a Dec. 2 news conference, internal affairs minister Takeaki Matsumoto said he had instructed Sugita to withdraw two comments she made before taking office and offer an apology to the offended parties. Later the same day, Sugita told the Upper House Budget Committee that she was offering an apology and retracting her words, explaining that as a member of the Cabinet she was obliged to do as she was told.

The comments that drew so much flak include her mocking ethnic Korean residents and Ainu aboriginal people from Japan who wore traditional costumes at a session of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 2016. Sugita, who also attended the session in Switzerland, referred to them in her blog as “middle-aged women in cosplay.” She also retracted a passage in a magazine article in 2018 in which she said same-sex couples are “unproductive.”

These remarks displayed a disturbing lack of awareness of human rights and ran counter to social mores to embrace diversity. They cast serious doubt on her qualifications to serve as a Diet member.

In an Upper House Budget Committee session on Dec. 1, Sugita took a defiant attitude with regard to her blog post, saying she should not be criticized for expressing her “impressions” at a time when she was a private individual. As for the “unproductive” comment, she later admitted it was “inappropriate,” but refused to offer an apology or retract it. 

Sugita’s sudden about-face is probably a simple gesture of compliance as the Kishida administration is keen to put the scandal behind it in the face of a barrage of attacks against her from opposition lawmakers in Diet sessions.

Sugita has yet to retract other remarks in which she denied discrimination against women exists and criticized a policy program to promote gender equality. She is grossly mistaken if she believes her latest actions will help get her off the hook.

In our view, Kishida’s decision to appoint her to a senior government post was a huge mistake. We are astonished he is still trying to defend her credentials.

On Dec. 2, the prime minister said he judged her to be equipped to perform the duties of her office. Kishida said she had a duty as a politician to fulfill her responsibility to explain her controversial comments, putting the burden of dealing with the matter entirely on her.

Sugita has been sued by journalist Shiori Ito for “liking” a number of Twitter posts that Ito claimed smeared her reputation after she went public with her rape accusation. Sugita has appealed a recent Tokyo High Court ruling that ordered her to pay compensation to Ito. This alone makes Sugita unfit for the third-highest post in a ministry responsible for dealing with the problem of online defamation.

Sugita was originally invited to join the Liberal Democratic Party by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his confidants. She was elected in the past two Lower House elections, having been placed high on the LDP’s list of candidates for the proportional representation section of the western Chugoku region, where voters are asked to write the names of the parties they vote for.

Kishida may have wanted to please conservative forces both within and outside the party by picking Sugita for a government post.

But if he keeps allowing Sugita to go unpunished for her outrageous remarks, Kishida’s promise to build an “inclusive society with diversity” will turn out to be an empty slogan.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 3