TOKYO// In an early blow to Japan's new government, the economy, trade and industry minister resigned yesterday over his comments about radiation contamination in crisis-hit Fukushima.
Yoshio Hachiro, appointed only a week ago in the new government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, provoked anger when he called the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant a "shi no machi" or a "town of death".
In a press conference, Mr Hachiro said Mr Noda had accepted his resignation, which came a day before Japan was to mark six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami which left 20,000 dead or missing and sparked the nuclear crisis at Fukushima.
The resignation comes as an early blow for Mr Noda, whose new government was named a week ago, replacing the administration of Naoto Kan, who resigned amid heavy criticism of his handling of the crisis.
Mr Noda had pledged to boost recovery efforts but the early resignation of one of his cabinet ministers will do little to instil confidence. Out of Mr Noda's 17-member cabinet, 10 including Mr Hachiro are newcomers to ministerial posts.
Mr Hachiro, who accompanied Mr Noda on a tour of the plant and its vicinity on Thursday, had told a news conference: "Unfortunately, there was not a soul in sight in the streets of the surrounding towns and villages."
Kyodo reported that after his visit to the nuclear plant, Mr Hachiro made as if he was rubbing his jacket against a journalist while making a remark to the effect that "I will infect you with radiation".
Mr Hachiro's "town of death" remark and apparent joking about radiation were widely seen as insensitive and immediately prompted opposition parties to demand Mr Noda dismiss him.
"If you were thinking about the feelings of Fukushima local residents, you wouldn't possibly act like that," said Shigeru Ishiba, a senior member of the leading opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
The "town of death" comment was seen as particularly outrageous because the government cannot provide evacuated residents with a firm timetable for their return, and has been criticised for how it has handled the crisis.
Mr Hachiro quickly apologised for the remark and retracted it.
Tens of thousands remain evacuated from homes, farms and businesses in a 20-kilometre radius around the Fukushima plant and in some pockets beyond.
The government has been criticised by activists and scientists who say the evacuation zone is too small and does not account for unpredictable radiation fallout patterns.