WASHINGTON — Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone apologized Friday to Americans for remarks he made that were criticized as racist slurs against blacks, Latinos and other minorities in the United States.
In a message issued in Tokyo and presented by Japanese Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga to a closed joint session of the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses, Nakasone said: "I realize that my recent remarks have offended many Americans. I would like to express my heartfelt apology."
The prime minister made his apology amid growing outrage in both Japan and the United States over a speech he made Monday to junior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, in which he suggested that blacks, Latinos and other minorities pull down the educational levels of the United States.
In the speech, since broadcast on Japanese television, Nakasone said: "The level of Japanese society far surpasses that of the United States. There are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the United States whose average level is extremely low."
Because of the imprecision of the Japanese language, it was unclear whether Nakasone was talking about intelligence or literacy levels.
"Let me make one thing very clear," Nakasone said in the apology. "I have always firmly believed that America's greatness derives from the dynamism and achievements of her many ethnic communities. It was not my intent whatsoever to imply any racial discrimination nor to criticize any aspect of American society."
Earlier in the week, in an attempt to explain his remarks, he had said that he did not mean to suggest that some American minority groups are inferior to whites, but only to note the differences in educational levels between the United States and Japan, which is racially homogeneous.
On Friday, many members of the black and Hispanic caucuses appeared placated by the apology.
"I think that the response from the prime minister is to me acceptable as a member of Congress, but my colleagues on the Congressional Black Caucus might have other thoughts," said Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), chairman of the 21-member black caucus.
California Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) added, "At a time when many of us in the Congress are working to improve relations with Japan, the prime minister's comments are unfortunate."
To Discuss Ramifications
Leland said the two caucuses would discuss the matter Monday before drafting an official response. "We are very concerned that the ramifications here be discussed in full," he said.
On Thursday, as word of the remarks circulated on Capitol Hill, several congressmen denounced Nakasone on the floor of Congress, and some called for a boycott of Japanese goods. On Friday morning, before the apology was delivered, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson picketed outside the Japanese Embassy.
In Japan, opposition leaders in Parliament issued a statement blasting Nakasone and saying his conduct was "seriously damaging to the reputation of Japan." One Socialist member had even accused Nakasone of displaying traits "characteristic of Adolf Hitler."
Nakasone had said in Parliament early Friday that he would not retract his remarks. By Friday afternoon, when Nakasone met Sosuke Uno, a former Cabinet minister, he appeared to have softened his stance. Uno told reporters that Nakasone admitted that his speech had been "a mistake."
"I'll have to do something about it," Uno quoted Nakasone as saying.
The final decision to make the apology, however, came after Foreign Minister Tadashi Kuranari returned to Tokyo from New York, where he attended the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
Told of U.S. Resentment
According to Japanese political sources, Kuranari told the prime minister that growing American resentment of Nakasone's remarks was becoming a major problem for Japan.
On Thursday, the New York offices of the Fuji Bank and of Japan Air Lines received bomb threats. The bank temporarily evacuated its offices, and the threat against JAL delayed Kuranari's flight back to Japan by three hours.
The increasingly adverse publicity Nakasone was getting at home no doubt helped to turn the tide in favor of an apology. Newspapers that had originally ignored Nakasone's remarks by Friday were playing on their front pages stories about the demands for an apology by Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Mark Landler reported from Washington and Andrew Horvat from Tokyo.