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Opposition parties question PM's responsibility as Cabinet minister gaffes pile up

Members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet have committed a string of serious verbal gaffes as of late, but opposition parties have not managed to capitalize on them to press for their resignations. Until now, that is. Triggered by disaster reconstruction minister Masahiro Imamura's April 25 comments on the Great East Japan Earthquake, opposition members have quite suddenly sprung to life, firing broadsides not just at the hapless ministers themselves, but at the very nature of the Abe government.

"More than the quality of Cabinet ministers, there is a problem with the culture of the Abe administration itself," declared Liberal Party Secretary-General Denny Tamaki in response to the Imamura gaffe. Imamura resigned on April 26 over comments the previous evening that it was "a good thing" the March 2011 disasters did not directly hit Tokyo instead of northeast Japan.

Kazunori Yamanoi, chairman of the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP)'s Diet Affairs Committee, came out swinging on the night of Imamura's comments, saying that Abe "must take responsibility because the prime minister defended" Imamura despite the reconstruction minister's previous gaffe.

He added, "Conditions for normal Diet debate are not present." The ruling parties were compelled to concede the point, and the Diet proceedings scheduled for April 26 were put on hold.

Among the items on the schedule for that day was a vote on revisions to the Act on Special Measures for the Reconstruction and Revitalization of Fukushima. The revisions would commit the central government to covering the cost of decontaminating a part of the "difficult to return zone" around the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant redesignated as a "revival base."

"The Abe administration is making light of both reconstruction of the disaster zone and reviving the livelihoods of the victims," commented Social Democratic Party Secretary-General Seiji Mataichi, reflecting the strongly critical tone coming from opposition parties.

Acting DP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama urged "the entire Abe Cabinet to do some serious soul-searching." Nippon Ishin no Kai Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Takashi Endo, whose party has stood out for cooperating with the ruling coalition in the Diet, criticized Imamura. "Imamura's resignation is a matter of course if one considers the disaster area," adding that his successor "should start over from scratch and build a relationship of trust with the disaster areas."

The criticism will not stop at Imamura, with opposition parties planning to question the prime minister's selections of Kozo Yamamoto, minister of regional revitalization, and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada as well.

The opposition had been battling the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee over the "anti-conspiracy bill" to amend Japan's organized crime law to criminalize "acts of preparations to commit crimes such as terrorism." However, all signs had pointed to a return to business as usual on April 26. The Imamura blowup, however, has shifted the political landscape, and the road ahead is murky.

If the ruling parties ram the anti-conspiracy bill through the Diet, opposition party resistance to the Abe administration is likely to stiffen significantly. Opposition-government clashes look likely to intensify as the current Diet session marches to its June 18 close.

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