Japan disaster minister resigns after earthquake gaffe sparks outrage
TOKYO // Japan’s disaster reconstruction minister resigned on Wednesday after saying it was lucky the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami had hit a largely rural region instead of Tokyo.
Prime minister Shinzo Abe was forced to apologise to residents of the devastated north-eastern region of Tohoku, which is still recovering more than six years on, after Masahiro Imamura’s comments sparked outrage.
“It was good that it occurred over there in Tohoku,” he said on Tuesday. “If it had been close to the capital zone, there would have been enormous damage,” he said, referring to the vast Tokyo sprawl.
A massive undersea quake on March 11, 2011, sent a tsunami pounding into Japan’s north-eastern coast, leaving more than 18,500 people dead or missing and sending three reactors into meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
After submitting his resignation, Mr Imamura said he deeply regretted the comments.
“I caused great trouble to the people of Tohoku and hurt their feelings. I’m very sorry,” he said, bowing.
Mr Abe, who was at the same political gathering on Tuesday, apologised to guests soon after Mr Imamura’s remarks, saying they were “extremely inappropriate”.
The minister’s words “hurt the feelings of people in the disaster-hit areas”, Mr Abe said on Wednesday. “As prime minister, I’d like to apologise deeply to the people in the disaster-hit areas.”
It was not the first time Mr Imamura has courted controversy.
He came under fire this month after saying people who had not yet returned to areas of Fukushima declared by the government as safe were “responsible for themselves”.
He then shouted at a journalist whose question led to the remarks to “get out.”
Mr Abe’s approval rating, although still above 50 per cent, has fallen recently due to scandals eroding public confidence in his government, now in its fifth year.
A vice economy minister resigned last week after a magazine reported an extramarital affair.
That came just weeks after the resignation of Shunsuke Mutai, a vice minister for reconstruction, who had joked last month that the “rubber boot industry made money” following a typhoon that killed 19 people in the northern town of Iwaizumi last year.
Mr Abe took power in December 2012 vowing to end years of on-and-off deflation and revitalise the world’s third-largest economy.
He was also elected on the back of widespread frustration with the previous administration’s handling of the 2011 nuclear disaster and perceived mismanagement of ties with its key ally the United States.
But he has recently been forced to distance himself and his wife from a nationalist school operator, whose purchase of state land to build a primary school at a huge discount has led to allegations of shady dealings.
* Agence France-Presse
Updated: April 26, 2017 04:00 AM