"In America, a black man became president. I mean, he's in a bloodline of black people who were slaves," Kazuya Maruyama, a lawmaker from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said Wednesday, during a meeting of the Upper House constitutional panel.
"People in the country's founding era would have never thought a black slave would become president," Maruyama said, making a point about America's "dynamic reform" while discussing constitutional changes being debated in Japan.
Obama, the first African American U.S. president, is not a descendant of slaves. He's the son of black father from Kenya and white mother from Kansas.
In a press conference after the meeting, Maruyama apologized for the statements that were widely perceived as racist. "I'm sorry that I made a remark that could lead to misunderstanding."
He repeated his apology in a phone call to CNN on Friday. "I am sorry to make the President and the people of the United States uncomfortable with my remark. I did not mean to be racist, but I wanted to say that the U.S. is great to have overcome its history of racism," Maruyama said. "I misspoke."
'Certain kind' of Japanese nationalism
Kyle Cleveland, an associate professor at Temple University in Tokyo, has written about racism in Japan and says Maruyama's comments are indicative of a greater issue among some Japanese politicians.
"This isn't just one particularly racially outrageous thing that he said about Obama, but it represents a certain kind of nationalism that this generation of politician holds," Cleveland said.
Cleveland cited Tokyo's controversial former Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who retired in 2014 after a political career full of incendiary and often racially charged statements.
Ishihara once said sangokujin, a derogatory term used to describe ethnic Chinese and Koreans in Japan, and other foreigners were more likely to commit crimes and would likely cause civil unrest if a natural disaster hit Tokyo.
Ishihara also made derogatory comments about women, homosexuals, and claimed the Nanking massacre was "a story made up by the Chinese."
Despite outrage over his remarks, Ishihara held office for nearly 50 years.
"It's a general lack of education on issues related to race, discrimination, and ethic diversity," Cleveland said.
The Japanese Trump?
Maruyama, a U.S. educated lawyer who rose to fame in Japan as a television legal commentator before running for office, drew comparisons this week to U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Trump, a leading Republican candidate, has been accused of racism for his comments about Muslims, Mexican immigrants, Asians, and Jews.
"What Trump's supporters like about him is he's outspoken and defiant of the norms of political correctness," Cleveland said.
But Cleveland believes, unlike Trump, Maruyama was not attempting to gain attention for his remarks.
"He's emblematic of a generation of Japanese politicians who are tone deaf to this kind of issue and out of touch," Cleveland said.
The LDP is led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose party has been rocked by recent scandals, including the resignation of a lawmaker embroiled in a sex scandal and an economic policy minister accused of misusing government money.
Japan is the United States' closest ally in the Asia Pacific region, which heightens the sensitivity over any perceived racist insult of the U.S. Commander in Chief.
In an apparent attempt to extinguish this latest controversy, Abe's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga quietly scolded Maruyama Thursday during a Lower House budget committee meeting.
"A politician must to be accountable to his own word and gain trust from the people. [Maruyama] is responsible for that," he said.