Matsumoto uproar distracts from Tohoku recovery goal

Job 1 for Hirano is rebuilding public trust


Staff Writer

Tatsuo Hirano, who Tuesday replaced Ryu Matsumoto as reconstruction minister, has a full plate and his first task will be to re-establish trust with survivors of the March 11 catastrophe in the Tohoku region that his predecessor damaged with insulting remarks just one week into the job.

While Tohoku continues to claw its way out of the nation’s worst postwar disaster, the political mess in Tokyo, including Matsumoto’s gaffe-triggered resignation, has only exacerbated the problem and added to Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s misfortunes.

Despite the harsh criticism from the opposition camp and calls from within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to step down, Kan continues his tenuous grip on power.

Matsumoto submitted his resignation to Kan on Tuesday morning after making videotaped remarks widely viewed as arrogant during meetings with Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso and Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai, including warning the central government would “not help municipalities that do not come up with ideas.”

Hirano will have to steer attention back to reconstructing the disaster zone.

“Regardless of the political situation, what the disaster victims want is restoration and reconstruction,” Hirano told the Lower House Budget Committee on Wednesday morning. “There is a mountain of issues that need to be dealt with. We must take care of them one by one and restore and reconstruct (the disaster area) as soon as possible.”

But Hirano, who had been Matsumoto’s deputy, stood up for his much criticized predecessor.

“I have been closely working with . . . Matsumoto since around March 15 and he truly had strong feelings toward the disaster victims,” Hirano told a news conference Tuesday evening. “I, too, would like to continue harboring such emotions toward the disaster victims and areas.”

Born and raised in Iwate, the 57-year-old Hirano, an Upper House lawmaker, has been a core member of the government’s team working to get the disaster-hit communities back on their feet.

He said he went to the disaster zone immediately on March 12 and has since visited the region repeatedly.

“I can still see the situation of the disaster area vividly. It is hard to describe it in words, but seeing it made my body tremble,” Hirano recalled.

Hirano is a former farm ministry bureaucrat who first won his Diet seat in 2001 as a member of the now-defunct Liberal Party, then headed by Ichiro Ozawa. The party merged with the DPJ in 2003.

Hirano is currently serving his second term as a DPJ Upper House lawmaker. And while he is a member of the Ozawa camp within the DPJ, there is said to be some distance between the two, as they do not see eye-to-eye on certain policies — including the need for financial reconstruction.

Hirano said he did not huddle with Ozawa over his appointment to the post of reconstruction minister.

“I didn’t consult him but I certainly need to inform him in some kind of way,” Hirano said, adding he did call Ozawa’s secretary to let him know.

LDP proposes ¥17 trillion


A Liberal Democratic Party panel on Wednesday called for a ¥17 trillion supplementary budget to carry out full-scale post-March 11 reconstruction, including various funds that survivors and municipalities can tap into at their discretion.

In its interim report, set to be finalized Friday, the panel calls for the budget to be financed through the issuance of special bonds separate from ordinary government bonds, and suggests increasing core taxes, including income taxes for households and companies, for a limited period of time to redeem the bonds.

The largest opposition party will seek to have the measures included in the government’s draft for a third extra budget for the current fiscal year, which ends next March.

The projected spending includes ¥2.4 trillion for reconstruction work, such as restoring roads and clearing away rubble, and ¥2.3 trillion for reviving local industries.

Funds are also included for bringing the nuclear crisis at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 power plant under control, compensating residents and businesses affected by evacuation orders and shipment bans, and decontaminating tainted soil.

As for the various funds, their allocation will be left to the discretion of local residents and authorities in the areas affected, such as supporting survivors’ living expenses and restoring the devastated fisheries industry, according to the report.