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The resignation of the Cabinet minister in charge of reconstruction from the March 2011 disasters — over inappropriate remarks about the calamities — appears to be yet another sign of the loosening discipline among members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet at a time when it basks in steady popular support and the opposition remains weak. Reconstruction minister Masahiro Imamura’s second gaffe over similar topics in just a few weeks raises doubts over his personal qualifications as a lawmaker, which in turn raises questions about Abe’s decision to tap him for the Cabinet position as well as his administration’s commitment to the job of rebuilding the areas hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Imamura, a 70-year-old veteran Lower House member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, came under sharp criticism early this month for stating that people in Fukushima who had voluntarily evacuated from their homes around Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant following the three reactor meltdowns at the plant should bear “self-responsibility for their decision” to stay away. He made the remark in response to questions in a news conference about the cutoff of public housing aid for those evacuees at the end of March and the government’s responsibility for their plight.

On Tuesday — with the repercussions from his earlier remark still in the air — Imamura said at an evening party of his LDP faction that it was “rather good” that the 2011 tsunami-quake disaster hit the Tohoku region and “not somewhere near the Tokyo area,” because it would have caused an “enormous amount of (financial) damage” to the country. Abe, who later attended the same party, immediately offered an apology himself, stating that “there has just been an extremely inappropriate remark that hurts the sentiments of people in Tohoku.” It is believed that Imamura, who tendered his resignation Wednesday morning, was effectively sacked by the administration.

Imamura is not alone among members of the Abe administration who have recently come under fire for problematic remarks and behavior, including a vice economy, trade and industry minister who quit the post and left the LDP last week over an alleged extramarital affair that was reported by a newsmagazine. Abe himself said he must “sincerely accept the criticism” that discipline is lapsing among members of his administration and that he “bears the responsibility” for appointing Imamura to the Cabinet position.

Like many other Cabinet ministers and lawmakers accused of gaffes, Imamura apologized for and retracted — though grudgingly — his remarks, which he insisted was taken in misleading ways contrary to his intentions. That Imamura made repeated gaffes over a period of three weeks raises the question whether he was just being careless in his words or whether he meant what he said.

A more serious question is whether Imamura’s words — coming from the minister in charge of reconstruction from the 2011 disasters — represented the Abe administration’s position toward the job of rebuilding the areas devastated by the tsunami and nuclear crisis. Right after returning to the government’s helm, Abe told the Diet in 2013 that “there will be no revival of Japan without the reconstruction of Fukushima and Tohoku.” In his address for the six-year anniversary of the 2011 disasters last month, Abe said the reconstruction is making steady progress and is “entering a new stage” with the lifting of evacuation orders to major parts of the former no-go zones around the Tepco plant. However, the presence of more than 120,000 people displaced from their homes, including nearly 80,000 Fukushima residents, signals that the reconstruction of people’s lives shattered by the disaster clearly remains a work in progress.

At the end of March, the government lifted evacuation orders to municipalities around the Tepco plant that used to be home to 32,000 people before the disaster, judging that public infrastructure has been sufficiently restored and ground soil contaminated by the radioactive fallout cleaned up. However, the return of former residents to their hometowns remains slow even after the evacuation orders have been lifted.

Many residents choose to stay away for various reasons, ranging from ongoing fears over the radiation to insufficient recovery of essential infrastructure such as shopping facilities and medical services. The lifting of evacuation orders alone will not restore their hometown communities to what they were before the disasters. The termination of public housing aid to people who had voluntarily evacuated from Fukushima areas outside of the no-go zones — who numbered some 27,000 as of last fall — was said to be intended to promote their return to their hometowns. However, many of these evacuees have chosen not to return for a variety of reasons, including radiation fears.

In the wake of Imamura’s resignation, Abe said reconstruction of the areas hit by the 2011 disasters will be the top priority of his administration. It is only hoped that he was not making the statement merely to control damage from Imamura’s gaffes.

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