Japan's Kan feels pressure after disaster reconstruction minister quits

A week into his new job, Japan's disaster reconstruction minister resigned after making remarks widely criticized as offensive during a visit to the tsunami-devastated northeastern coast.

By , Correspondent

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    Japan's newly appointed disaster reconstruction minister Ryu Matsumoto speaks at a news conference after resigning his post, in Tokyo, on July 5, 2011.
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The new government minister for reconstruction, Ryu Matsumoto, resigned today after a weekend trip to the devastated northeast where he berated senior local politicians, appeared to threaten to withhold aid, and joked that he had no idea where the towns and cities of the region are.

Mr. Matsumoto was appointed to the newly-created post of Reconstruction Minister last Wednesday by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and his resignation will bring further pressure on the embattled leader, who is already under fire for his government’s response to the triple disasters that struck the region March 11.

On his first trip to the northeast regions worst-hit by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, Matsumoto enraged local politicians and citizens with what was widely perceived to be a condescending attitude and insensitive remarks.

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Arriving in Iwate on Sunday, Matsumoto told the prefecture’s governor, Takuya Tasso, that the government would, “give aid to those areas that come up with ideas for reconstruction, but not to those that don’t have any.”

The minister then joked that, “being from Kyushu [Japan’s southwestern island] I don’t really know which northeastern towns and cities are in which prefecture.”

Continuing on to Miyagi, the worst-hit prefecture, Matsumoto was visibly irritated at being made to wait for the local governor, Yoshiro Murai, and refused to shake his hand when he arrived. He then told the governor, “When you have a guest, you should be here first. Got it? As a former Self Defense Force [Japan’s Army] man, you should know how to behave toward your superiors.”

Matsumoto, himself an ex-Self Defense Force helicopter pilot, went on to tell the attending media, “You lot better not report all this.”

After videos of the meetings were broadcast online and on television, the minister faced a barrage of criticism and calls for him to quit. Matsumoto apologized for his remarks on Monday, saying he hadn’t meant to offend residents of the disaster areas. He handed his resignation to the prime minister at 8.45 a.m. on Tuesday.

A teary Matsumoto told a press conference after his resignation that he had intended “to be on the side of the disaster victims. I apologize sincerely if my words were inadequate or rough.”

Matsumoto’s deputy, Tatsuo Hirano – a native of the hard-hit Iwate prefecture – was promoted to take over from his former boss shortly after.

''I'd like to accelerate efforts to create an environment that will tackle reconstruction without further delay,'' Hirano told reporters after meeting with Mr. Kan.

Opposition politicians lined up to attack the prime minister for appointing Matsumoto in the first place.

“This is Kan’s responsibility,” said Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary general of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, adding, “the best thing Kan can do for the reconstruction effort is resign as quickly as possible.”

Kan survived a no-confidence motion last month by promising to step down once the recovery efforts were on track and the situation at Fukushima was stabilized. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party faced criticism for tabling the motion at a time when many people felt the nation should be focused on helping the devastated northeast.

Kan received a boost to his approval ratings after winning the no-confidence vote by a comfortable margin, though that goodwill may now evaporate and the clamor for his own resignation grow even louder.

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