By Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso retracted on Thursday a comment he had made that referred to Adolf Hitler's rise to power and which was interpreted as praising the Nazi regime.
The outspoken Aso, who is also finance minister and a former prime minister, said he had caused misunderstanding with the comment, which has drawn criticism from a U.S.-based Jewish-rights group and media in South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan's World War Two militarism run deep.
The furor caused by Aso - no stranger to gaffes - and the government's effort to smother the issue highlights the sensitivities facing hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
His push to take a less apologetic tone in Japan's diplomacy and his interpretations of wartime history have attracted repeated criticism from countries such as the two Koreas and China, which suffered under harsh Japanese rule before and during the war.
Japan's Asian neighbors are wary of Abe's drive to revise a U.S.-drafted post-war constitution, which renounces war, as part of a more assertive defense and security policy.
Aso was discussing constitutional revision in a speech to a conservative group on Monday when he made the controversial statements.
"Germany's Weimar constitution was changed before anyone realized," Aso said in his typically rambling style, according to accounts in various Japanese media.
"It was altered before anyone was aware. Why don't we learn from that technique?" Aso said. "I don't want us to decide (on the constitution) amid commotion and excitement. We should carry this out after a calm public debate."
South Korean media criticized Aso's remarks, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked him to clarify them.
"The only lessons on governance that the world should draw from the Nazi Third Reich is how those in positions of power should not behave," Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the centre, said in a statement on the group's website.
China's Foreign Ministry also reacted angrily to the comment, saying Japan needed to "seriously reflect on history".
On Thursday, Aso said he had meant in the speech to seek a calm and in-depth debate on the constitution. He said he wanted to avoid the kind of turmoil that he said helped Hitler change the democratic constitution established by Germany's Weimar government after World War One, under which the dictator had taken power.
"I pointed to the changes to the Weimar constitution made under the Nazi regime as a bad example of changes made without a substantial debate or understanding by the citizens," Aso told reporters.
"I invited misunderstanding as a result and I would like to withdraw the statement in which I cited the Nazi regime as an example," he said.
Aso's retraction followed a discussion with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who sought to put an end to the controversy.
"I want to stress that the Abe administration does not perceive the Nazi Germany in a positive light," Suga told a regular news conference. He said Japan has contributed to global peace and human rights for many years and would continue to do so.
Aso, the scion of a family whose mining company used Korean forced laborers during Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula, has talked himself into trouble before.
During his 2008-2009 stint as prime minister, Aso offended a wide swathe of voters with off-the-cuff remarks that included a joke about sufferers of Alzheimer's disease. Before becoming prime minister in 2008, he has offended the main opposition party by apparently likening them to Nazis.
(Editing by William Mallard and Robert Birsel)