Ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker Hideo Onishi told reporters on May 22 that a comment he made a week before that "cancer patients needn't work" had been misunderstood, and was not meant as a dismissive dig at cancer patients.
Onishi made the comment during a May 15 discussion on secondhand smoke countermeasures at the LDP's Health, Labor and Welfare Division, after House of Councillors member Junko Mihara asked that her fellow lawmakers consider the suffering of cancer patients working in places with secondhand smoke.
Onishi, who represents Tokyo's No. 16 constituency in the House of Representatives, apologized for "wounding" the feelings of cancer patients. However, he did not withdraw the comment, saying, "I intended to point out that cancer patients don't have to force themselves to work in places where smoking is allowed." He added, "I made the comment during a discussion on employee secondhand smoke exposure at restaurants, and I was not saying that cancer patients in general don't need to work."
However, cancer patient associations and support groups lambasted Onishi's comment at a news conference the same day, calling it "a step backward, particularly as the government is now developing measures to make cancer treatment compatible with work."
Cancer patients often find it hard to stay on the job even when willing and able to keep working, as some employers will even ask them to quit if a patient's condition is discovered.
"The employment situation for cancer patients is still very difficult, and we have a sense of crisis. We are hearing from a lot of angry and sad patients," said Shinsuke Amano, chairman of "Zenkoku Gan kanja dantai rengokai," a national federation of cancer patient groups. "There are a lot of patients out there hiding their illness as they continue to work, so there are many of them working in places with secondhand smoke who can't speak up about it," he added.
Government support for compatibility between employment and cancer treatment is laid out in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's "2rd-Term Comprehensive 10-year Cancer Control Strategy," implemented in 2012. Also, calling on companies to consider measures to allow cancer patients to continue working was one of the pillars of revisions to the Cancer Control Act passed last year. Furthermore, the appointment of a support coordinator for cancer patients getting treatment while staying on the job was included in the government's "working style reform" plan formulated in March this year.
The comment on cancer patients is not Onishi's first verbal gaffe. In 2015, he stated that "killing off mass media outlets' ad revenue is the best way to punish them," prompting a stern reprimand from the LDP. In March last year, Onishi also drew criticism for sexism after he said, "I thought, 'But you're just a shrine maiden,'" in response to one of the female shrine assistants saying that she didn't like the LDP very much.