Japan's Rebuilding Minister Resigns After Offending Tsunami Victims

July 5, 2011

Japan's embattled government received a fresh blow Tuesday when the new disaster reconstruction minister resigned a week after his appointment because of criticism he was rude to officials on a trip to the tsunami-ravaged coast.

The teary-eyed minister, Ryu Matsumoto, apologized and stepped down after a weekend trip in which he berated a local governor for being late to a meeting and threatened to withhold aid.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who created the new Cabinet position last week, had hoped it would help fend off critics who have questioned his leadership in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that wiped out much of the country's northeast coast.

Kan has been under intense pressure to step down himself, but has said he will do so only after putting Japan on a solid recovery path. His government faces deep rifts in the ruling party and an increasingly emboldened opposition, which has denounced his response as dithering and poorly coordinated.

Matsumoto's brief performance is unlikely to help.

In meetings with local governors over the weekend, the minister'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. However, they were widely reported in the media, and a video of the exchange was posted on the Internet.

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 would promote Vice Minister Tatsuo Hirano to fill the post. Hirano was born in Iwate Prefecture, one of the regions hit hardest by the tsunami.

"I felt that I was the person closest to the disaster victims," 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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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