Tokyo - Japan's gaffe-prone deputy prime minister on Thursday retracted controversial remarks that suggested Tokyo could learn from Nazi Germany when it comes to constitutional reform.
"It is regrettable that my remarks over the Nazi administration led to a misunderstanding, which was not my intention," Taro Aso, who is also finance minister, said as he read a statement to reporters.
"It is clear from all my remarks that I have an extremely negative view of the events involving the Nazis and the Weimar constitution. But I want to retract the use of the Nazi administration as an example because that invited the misunderstanding."
Aso's latest comments came as Tokyo moved to distance itself from his remarks, insisting it did not reflect the view of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative administration.
"I want to make it clear that the Abe cabinet will never view the Nazi government positively," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Tokyo's top spokesperson, told a press briefing.
Aso faced criticism over a speech to a conservative think tank on Monday in which he said Tokyo could look to the way the Nazis quietly adopted reforms as a guide for how to change its own pacifist constitution.
"First, mass media started to make noises [about Japan's proposed reforms], and then China and South Korea followed suit," Aso was quoted by Japanese media as saying.
"The German Weimar constitution changed, without being noticed, to the Nazi German constitution. Why don't we learn from their tactics?"
In response, the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre immediately called on Aso to clarify his comments.
"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," the Jewish human rights group said in a statement on its website late on Tuesday.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has said it wants to revise the US-imposed pacifist constitution to define Japan's defence forces as a full-fledged military force, amid territorial tensions with neighbours China and South Korea.
That has stirred strong emotions in Beijing and Seoul which have long maintained that Japan has never come to terms with its militaristic past.
On Tuesday, South Korean foreign ministry spokesperson Cho Tai-young said Aso's remarks "obviously hurt many people".
"It is also clear how such remarks are seen by the peoples of neighbouring countries invaded by imperial Japan in the past," Cho said.
"Japanese political leaders should be careful with their words and behaviour."
Aso is known for his sometimes uncomfortable and clumsy remarks, including saying earlier this year that elderly people should "hurry up and die" to avoid taxing the country's medical system.