Japan’s economy, trade and industry minister resigned on Saturday over his comments about radiation contamination in crisis-hit Fukushima, Japanese media reported.
Yoshio Hachiro — appointed only a week ago in the new government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda — provoked anger when he called the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant a “shi no machi” or a “town of death”.
Kyodo News reported that Noda had accepted Hachiro’s resignation, which came a day before Japan was set to mark six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which left 20 000 dead or missing and sparked the nuclear crisis at Fukushima.
Witnesses have also said that after his visit to the nuclear plant, Hachiro made as if he was rubbing his jacket against a journalist, while making a remark to the effect that “I will infect you with radiation”.
Hachiro’s remark and apparent joking about radiation were widely seen as insensitive and immediately prompted opposition parties to demand Noda dismiss him.
“If you were thinking about the feelings of Fukushima local residents, you wouldn’t possibly act like that,” said Shigeru Ishiba, a senior member of the leading opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
The “town of death” comment was seen as particularly outrageous because the government cannot provide evacuated residents with a firm timetable for their return.
Noda visited the north eastern region that was devastated by the March 11 quake and tsunami as the nation prepared to mark six months since tragedy struck.
Noda, visiting ravaged Miyagi and Iwate prefectures for the first time since taking office a week ago, inspected the port city of Kesennuma — one of the most severely damaged communities on the Pacific coast.
The new premier, accompanied by state minister in charge of post-disaster reconstruction Tatsuo Hirano, later visited Iwate prefecture’s devastated Rikuzentakata city.
Escorted by local officials, Noda walked around an area flattened by the monster waves that left only concrete foundations behind and where weeds have begun to sprout.
“I saw how massive the tsunami force was with my own eyes,” he said, according to Jiji Press. “I would like to see proposals from local residents so that we can help them rise again from this.”
After inspecting the destroyed facilities of the Kesennuma fish market, Noda promised to local officials that the government will “reflect your needs and opinions on such measures as special economic zones for reconstruction, subsidies and the third extra budget.”
Noda’s visit, a day ahead of the six-month anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, follows his inspection of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Thursday.
Ceremonies to mourn the dead and rallies against nuclear power are scheduled to take place across the nation with silent prayers to be offered on Sunday — the exact moment the quake struck six months ago.
A day ahead of the anniversary, survivors in Soma in Fukushima prefecture held a memorial ceremony for the 459 people dead or missing from the city.
“I promise to address the reconstruction with all my strength and all my heart,” said Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato as he stood in front of a stage full of white chrysanthemums.
Planned events in the disaster area include one organised by fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto in Soma, in which hundreds of paper lanterns will be released into the air on Saturday evening.
Yamamoto held similar memorial events in Chernobyl, which experienced a serious nuclear accident 25 years ago, and Indonesia — the nation hardest hit by the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl
The March 11 tsunami ravaged Japan’s northeast, leaving nearly 20 000 dead or missing, according to the latest police figures.
The towering wall of water battered cooling systems at the Fukushima plant, 220km north east of Tokyo, triggering the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
Noda replaced Naoto Kan, who stepped down amid criticism over his handling of the aftermath of the triple disaster.