A week into his new job, Japan’s disaster reconstruction minister resigned on Tuesday after making remarks widely criticized as offensive during a visit to the tsunami-devastated north-eastern coast, where he refused to shake a governor’s hand, scolded the official and threatened to withhold aid.
In meetings with local governors over the weekend, Ryu Matsumoto’s words were regarded as arrogant and uncaring, angering local residents and political opponents. He told the governor of Iwate, one of the hardest-hit prefectures, that the government would not help municipalities that did not have good ideas about rebuilding.
To Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai, Matsumoto expressed irritation that he was made to wait for the tardy governor. Matsumoto refused to shake Murai’s hand when he entered the room and scolded the visibly surprised governor.
“When a guest comes to visit, do not call up the guest until you have arrived in the room,” he told Murai. “Do you understand?”
He then warned journalists in the room not to report his words. They were widely reported in the media, and a video of the exchange was posted on the Internet.
The resignation is a new blow to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who is likely to face renewed pressure to step down himself. The March 11 earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis brought out deep rifts within Kan’s party and strengthened the largest opposition bloc, which has denounced his response as dithering and poorly coordinated.
Kan’s appointment of 60-year-old Matsumoto to the newly created post of disaster reconstruction minister was an effort to bolster his administration against criticism of its handling of the crises.
Jin Sato, the outspoken mayor of badly damaged Minami Sanriku, said the minister’s comments deeply upset disaster victims already frustrated with the recovery process.
“I have been saying all along that this government has no sense of speed,” he said on public broadcaster NHK. “My frank opinion is that this resignation drama is another misstep.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that Kan accepted Matsumoto’s resignation and hoped to appoint a replacement as soon as possible.
At a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday, Matsumoto apologized for his comments. He also stepped down from his second post of disaster management minister.
“I felt that I was the person closest to the disaster victims,” a teary-eyed Matsumoto said. “But I sincerely apologize that my words hurt their feelings because they were insufficient or rough.”
The disaster devastated Japan’s northeastern coast, destroying towns, homes and businesses. More than 22,600 people are dead or missing.
Kan took office just over a year ago. He is Japan’s fifth leader in four years.
He has said he is willing to step down, but only after major steps are made toward putting Japan’s recovery on solid footing. He has also set several preconditions, including the passage of budget bills and a renewable energy measure.
Matsumoto’s resignation will not affect the length of the prime minister’s tenure, Edano said. With so much work to do, it would be “irresponsible” for Kan to step away now, he said.