These days, it seems like almost every time a former prime minister of Japan opens his mouth, a new controversy is stirred somewhere. But one who hasn’t been heard from for a while, notes Shukan Bunshun (Feb 27), is the right honorable Taro Aso, the current deputy prime minister and finance minister in the current Abe cabinet. You know, the guy who, while at the speaker’s dais, frequently fumbles the readings of kanji.
This time, Aso said, “If judo’s [Yasuhiro] Yamashita had been able to speak English, he would have been made chairman of the international sports organization. But because he couldn’t say anything at all, during ‘that bout,’ as team manager, he couldn’t protest to the referees by saying, ‘Something’s wrong here.’ That’s because he doesn’t know English. Unfortunately that’s the truth.”
Yamashita took the gold medal for Japan at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in the unlimited weight class, and was subsequently made a recipient of the “People’s Honor Award” at the age of 27. He currently serves as one of the directors of the Japan Olympic Committee.
“Aso’s remarks came up during a question and answer session of the budget committee in the House of Representatives,” says a reporter who covers political affairs. “A question had been raised by legislator Hiroshi Hase about the necessity for ‘sports diplomacy.’ Even though it was not intended to reflect on athletes’ ability to communicate in English, Mr Hase (who himself was also once an Olympic wrestler the same year Yamashita took the gold medal) seemed to be taken aback by Aso’s response.”
The “bout,” to which Aso was referring was at the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, when Yamashita was head coach of the Japanese judo team. In the final of the super heavyweight class, Shinichi Shinohara lost to French judoist David Douillet based on a controversial split decision by the three referees.
Yamashita could be seen on TV harshly criticizing the decision. It was this that Aso chose to raise as an example of Japan’s poor English education.
The aforementioned reporter said, “Slips of this nature have become Mr Aso’s stock in trade, so when I heard it, all I could think of was, ‘Well, there he goes again.’ It was just like his remark last July about the Nazi’s ignoring Germany’s Weimar Constitution. He just took the criticism in stride.”
Actually Yamashita has become friends with another famous judoka, Russian President Vladimir Putin. And as for his English ability, the Asahi Shimbun of Feb 15 reported that Yamashita sometimes steps in to act as an interpreter at international conferences and as a director of the International Judo Federation, speaks in English.
Aso, who after graduation with a degree in economics from Gakushuin University, matriculated at Stanford University and the London School of Economics. He’s made numerous prepared speeches at international conferences, but an unnamed foreign correspondent based in Tokyo had this to say: “Mr Aso might have a high opinion of his own English ability, but it’s not at the level where he can go overseas and understand it. While he can get along with foreigners easily enough by exchanging hearty jokes, his English listening comprehension is almost nil.”
Following a visit to the Obama White House in 2009, Aso began talking to the president in English, but abruptly switched to Japanese midway in the conversation. A transcript issued after the talk labeled his remarks as “inaudible.”