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Reconstruction minister under fire over no responsibility for 'voluntary evacuees' remarks

People protest remarks made on April 4 by Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura in front of Central Government Building No. 4, in which the Reconstruction Agency is housed, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on the evening of April 5, 2017. (Mainichi)

The minister in charge of recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear disaster, has been met with strong protest for his remarks during a press conference in which he suggested the government was not responsible for assisting "voluntary evacuees" from Fukushima Prefecture.

At an April 4 press conference, Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura stated that it was up to "voluntary evacuees," whose housing assistance that had been provided through the Fukushima Prefectural Government was cut off at the end of March, to decide what to do next. "Voluntary evacuees" refer to those who evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture, although their places of residence are not designated as no-go zones by the government.

Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura (Mainichi)

When a journalist asked him whether he meant the evacuees were "self-accountable," Imamura responded, "Basically, yes." The minister went on to say such evacuees can "launch a lawsuit or whatever."

After being grilled further over his remarks, Imamura yelled at the journalist saying, "Don't come here again."

Later in the day, Imamura apologized for being infuriated during the press conference, but did not recant his statement that "voluntary evacuees" were left up to their own devices, saying he had spoken "objectively."

Just last month, the Maebashi District Court in Gunma Prefecture ordered the central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, to pay damages in a class action lawsuit brought by Fukushima Prefecture residents who had evacuated to Gunma Prefecture and elsewhere. The plaintiffs in the suit released a statement, saying, "The remarks cannot be overlooked as they were made by the minister in charge of leading reconstruction."

Sugie Tanji, 60, who "voluntarily" evacuated to Gunma Prefecture and was a plaintiff in the case, said, "All evacuees wish the incident had never happened. Imamura's remarks only show that he has not taken seriously the court ruling recognizing the central government's accountability in the disaster. I am boiling over with anger."

In front of Central Government Building No. 4 in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district, where the Reconstruction Agency is housed, around 20 evacuees and supporters gathered on April 5 with banners and placards, calling for Imamura's resignation.

"The radiation levels in our yard back home are so high that children cannot enter," said Yuya Kamoshita, 48, a university adjunct lecturer who "voluntarily" evacuated from the Fukushima Prefecture city of Iwaki with three family members. "This situation is hard on us both financially and psychologically. The minister's remarks are appalling and saddening."

On April 5, opposition party lawmakers also protested Imamura's remarks. "Which administration was it that said it would be sensitive to the needs of the people of Fukushima?" Democratic Party Diet affairs chief Kazunori Yamanoi asked. "The latest remarks have been painfully cold. Meanwhile, Keiji Kokuta, the Diet affairs chief of the Japanese Communist Party, said, "We cannot help but question Imamura's qualifications as reconstruction minister."

The secretary-general of the Social Democratic Party, Seiji Mataichi, released a comment, saying, "The remarks were abusive and insensitive toward voluntary evacuees who cannot return home due to various concerns, such as child-rearing." He also demanded that Imamura retract his remarks and issue an apology to "voluntary evacuees," and for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to remove Imamura from his post.

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