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Minister under fire for questioning foreign journalist's Japanese at press conf.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi is seen speaking at the National Diet in Tokyo in this file photo from March 23, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi's conduct toward a foreign reporter at a recent press conference has provoked criticism, after he used English to respond to part of a question the journalist had asked in Japanese, and concluded his remarks by asking her, "Did you understand the Japanese answer?"

    Video of the exchange has invited accusations online that he behaved in a discriminatory fashion. The Mainichi Shimbun took a look into the problematic features of Motegi's behavior this time around.

    The press conference where the question-and-answer session took place was a regular Ministry of Foreign Affairs one held in Tokyo on Aug. 28. Magdalena Osumi, a journalist for the English language newspaper The Japan Times, asked the minister a question regarding controls on foreign residents of Japan entering the country's borders as part of policies to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. Her two-part question, in Japanese, touched on "the direction for easing reentry requirements," and, "the scientific basis for introducing the controls."

    In response to the first part on the direction for easing requirements, Motegi said that the government was making adjustments to the situation. But he didn't touch on the scientific basis query, prompting Osumi to ask the minister to address that part of the question. The minister then replied in English, saying, "What do you mean by scientific?" Osumi rebuffed the switch in languages, answering, "In Japanese is fine. You don't have to treat me like I'm an idiot." Motegi denied the charge, saying, "I'm not treating you like an idiot. I'm absolutely not treating you like an idiot."

    But when pushed to give an answer on the scientific basis, the minister didn't provide a response to the content of the question, saying, "It's an issue concerning immigration control, so please direct your query to the Immigration Services Agency." He then added, "Did you understand the Japanese answer?"

    Motegi has a history of expressing displeasure with journalists' Japanese ability, and the incident with Osumi is not the first to have occurred. At a July 21 press conference, in response to a question also concerning reentry controls on foreign residents to Japan, he said to a French reporter who had asked him a question in Japanese, "I heard sanyukoku (instead of sainyukoku, the word for reentry to a country), so I thought I was being asked about oil-producing countries. As it's about reentry, I got the gist of the question."

    At the Aug. 28 press conference, Osumi was spoken to in English, but she is actually from Poland and has lived in Japan for over 15 years. Although she writes in English, she uses Japanese in interviews and her daily life, and says she considers Japanese her first language.

    Regarding Motegi's response, Osumi said, "I didn't especially think of it as discrimination." She added, "In response to questions they're not normally asked, politicians often look for ways to get around answering them, so it's probably the same as if a reporter of Japanese nationality asked a question."

    But she also said, "It wasn't one of those questions you often get saying, 'Minister, please tell us your opinion.' The question I asked was a complicated one that they (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) hadn't done preparations to answer, so the minister was probably surprised, too. I'm a foreign reporter, so he diverted the topic to one about language."

    But on Twitter, their exchange incited a stream of critical responses, including, "He treated her like she's so stupid," and, "The other person asked the question in proper Japanese. This way of responding, which lacks common sense, degrades Japan."

    Hiroki Mochizuki, the 34-year-old editor of the online magazine Nippon Fukuzatsu Kikou -- which is run by nonprofit organization the Japan Association for Refugees -- said regarding Motegi's attitude: "So as not to answer inconvenient questions, he belittled the Japanese ability of the journalist, and attempted to reduce trust with the person asking the question." He went on, "That he went as far as to add, 'Did you understand the Japanese answer?' created an atmosphere that suggested, 'The reporter's question is bad, and does not merit a response.'"

    To Mochizuki, that the content of the query concerned reentry controls for foreign nationals with Japanese residency was "very important." He explained, "The journalist spoke regarding the long-term refusal to allow residents of foreign nationality to reenter the country, and sought to understand whether there was scientific backing to drawing a line between people based on whether they have citizenship.

    "Essentially, what was asked was whether there is a stance in the government of unfairly looking down on residents with foreign citizenship. But regardless, the minister didn't just avoid answering whether there was a scientific basis to it, but to get by without answering he went as far as behaving in a way that belittled a reporter with roots in a foreign country. It is deeply inappropriate, and his behavior is fundamentally linked with the harsh limits on foreign residents' rights."

    (Japanese original by Shu Furukawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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