Taro Aso, Japan's deputy prime minister, was forced to deny that he advocated the elderly should "hurry up and die" to save the government the cost of providing medical care for them.
The 72-year-old Aso, who has a reputation for speaking insensitively, was addressing a meeting on social security issues on the burden imposed by prolonging patients' lives with treatment.
Describing patients with serious illnesses as "tube persons", Aso said they should be allowed to die quickly if they wanted to, Kyodo News reported.
"Heaven forbid I should be kept alive if I want to die. You cannot sleep well when you think it's all paid by the government. This won't be solved unless you let them hurry up and die."
He later retracted some of his remarks and admitted it had been inappropriate to make such comments in public. They were his personal opinion, not government policy, he said.
Aso became something of a figure of fun during his brief stint as prime minister in 2009, during which he told a group of university students that young people should not get married because they are too poor and, because they don't earn much money, they are not worthy of respect from a life partner.
That insight was followed by a declaration that followers of the world's religions should learn from Japan's work ethic.
"Our values in Japan regard work as important. To work is good. That is a completely different way of thinking to the Old Testament. We should share that philosophy with other nations."
Aso has a reputation for not always thinking through his public comments. He had offended doctors by saying many of them "lack common sense"; the Democratic Party of Japan for comparing it with the Nazi Party; people with Alzheimer's disease and also China, which he described as "a significant threat".