The minister for disaster reconstruction, Masahiro Imamura, stepped down Wednesday over a gaffe that has enraged Tohoku residents.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed to limit political damage by immediately appointing a Fukushima lawmaker to replace him.
“Yesterday Minister Imamura made extremely inappropriate remarks in a speech that badly hurt the feelings of people in the disaster-hit areas,” Abe told reporters after receiving the letter of resignation at the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I, as the prime minister, bear the responsibility for appointing him. I apologize to the people for this result from the bottom of my heart,” Abe said.
Abe also said, “We will do our best to achieve reconstruction” of the Tohoku area.
Abe then announced the appointment of Masayoshi Yoshino, who has served as the chairman of the special Lower House committee on Tohoku reconstruction.
During a fundraising party on Tuesday in Tokyo, Imamura said in a speech that “it was better” that the 2011 quake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region and not near Tokyo, because the disaster would have caused an “enormous amount” of financial damage to the country.
His remarks were immediately reported nationwide, as they were interpreted as suggesting he attaches far less importance to the lives of people in the Tohoku region.
More than 20,000 people were killed or remain unaccounted for from the disasters of March 11, 2011.
Abe was quick to react, apparently putting pressure on Imamura to step down.
Shortly after Imamura made the remarks on Tuesday, the prime minister made a brief speech at the same fundraising party. He apologized for Imamura’s words, saying they were inappropriate and “hurt the feelings of Tohoku people.” Then he started arranging to replace him.
A high-ranking government official said Abe had effectively fired Imamura, though Abe said publicly that Imamura had voluntarily submitted a letter of resignation.
Imamura at first apparently didn’t realize how serious the repercussions of his remarks would be. Only after reporters quizzed him on Tuesday did he say he would withdraw them.
Abe has good reason to rush to try to stem political damage. In recent months, a number of gaffes and scandals have hit his Cabinet, although approval ratings have remained high at around 50 percent.
Last week Toshinao Nakagawa, parliamentary vice minister of economy, trade and industry, resigned over his alleged extramarital affairs.
Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, meanwhile, has many times poorly handled questions from opposition lawmakers during Diet deliberations over a controversial conspiracy bill that would punish the planning of certain crimes, ostensibly to combat terrorism.
A major newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun, argued in its editorial Wednesday that lawmakers from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party were “arrogant” and had become complacent after holding power since Abe’s election in December 2012.
Abe later referred to public criticism such as that in the Mainichi editorial in his remarks to reporters, saying, “We have to take such views very seriously.”
Earlier this month, Imamura apologized for raising his voice at a freelance journalist during a news conference. He was criticized for arguing that “voluntary evacuees” from around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — those who moved out of areas that were not mandatory evacuation zones — should take “responsibility for their own decisions.”