Ryu Matsumoto resigned Tuesday as reconstruction minister just a week into his stint after he drew flak for insulting two governors in the disaster-hit Tohoku region he was tasked to rebuild, and his exit drove Prime Minister Naoto Kan into a deeper political quagmire.
Later in the day, Tatsuo Hirano, who had served as a senior vice minister at the Cabinet Office in charge of disaster reconstruction under Matsumoto, was promoted to the post of reconstruction minister. Hirano, 57, is an Upper House member who hails from Iwate Prefecture, unlike his Kyushu predecessor.
Kan came under fresh criticism from the opposition camp as well as from within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan over Matsumoto’s contentious remarks over the weekend that angered the communities ravaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
With the quick replacement, Kan hoped to minimize the damage to his administration. But he undoubtedly will face increasing pressure to move up his own departure from office, even though he has vowed to stay on until tangible progress is achieved in mending the Tohoku region and ending the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
Matsumoto faced reporters in the morning to announce his decision to resign and apologized to the people in the disaster zone over his comments.
While visiting the disaster zone Sunday, he made a series of remarks widely regarded as arrogant during meetings with Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso and Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai, including stating that the central government would “not help municipalities that do not come up with ideas.”
He also warned journalists not to report his “off-the-record” dressing down of Murai.
“I would first like to truly offer my apology for hurting the feelings of the disaster victims with my lack of words and rough language,” Matsumoto said, without clarifying why he was stepping down except to say it was for “personal” reasons.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Matsumoto offered his resignation after expressing concern that his controversial statements could negatively effect the reconstruction process.
Matsumoto had vowed Monday to stay in his post and Edano said his resignation came as “a bolt from the blue.”
Edano stressed that the Kan administration is focused on reconstruction in the quake zone and expressed his view that the Matsumoto episode won’t affect the timing of Kan’s resignation.
“We must unhesitatingly carry out the basic policies for reconstruction,” Edano said. “There are issues we need to deal with right in front of our faces and it would be irresponsible to shirk our duties.”
Meanwhile, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara urged Kan to step down as soon as possible.
“Kan bears responsibility for appointing this minister and I think the best thing for the restoration and reconstruction of disaster-hit east Japan is for the Kan Cabinet to resign at the earliest possible date,” Ishihara said.
Matsumoto’s inflammatory remarks drew criticism from members of the DPJ as well.
“I think the prime minister naturally should be held responsible for appointing” Matsumoto, said DPJ Diet affairs chief Jun Azumi. Kan “has no centripetal force. . . . I feel ashamed over this disgrace toward the people in the disaster area who are in such a harsh environment.”
Matsumoto was officially appointed as reconstruction minister June 27 but had been deeply engaged in dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami as the disaster management minister.
On Tuesday, he promised to continue working on reconstruction from a “rank and file” position: “I still don’t like the ruling nor opposition parties, but I am hoping that we can put our hearts together and I, Ryu Matsumoto, would like to make efforts toward reconstruction.”