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Reconstruction minister's resignation reveals gov't's sloppiness under Abe's dominance

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologizes over then Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura's remarks about the 2011 disaster at a Tokyo hotel on April 25, 2017. (Mainichi)

The resignation of Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura after he said on April 25 that it was "a good thing" that the March 2011 disaster hit the Tohoku region instead of areas near the Tokyo metropolitan area has exposed the serious sloppy attitude of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

While Abe made Imamura decide later in the day to resign, the now former minister had just retracted and apologized for another gaffe after he made remarks about "voluntary evacuees" who fled Fukushima Prefecture out of concerns over radiation from the nuclear plant disaster, in which Imamura said such evacuees were "self-accountable." Since Abe had decided to keep Imamura in the ministerial position after the first blunder, his latest remarks and resignation made the matter even worse for the prime minister.

"I would like to apologize first and foremost about the extremely inappropriate comment that Abe Cabinet member Reconstruction Minister Imamura made in a speech, which would hurt the people in the Tohoku region," Prime Minister Abe told a party for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s Toshihiro Nikai faction on April 25, about an hour after Imamura made the comment at the same party.

At that moment, the chance of Imamura remaining in the ministerial position became virtually unlikely.

At around 10 p.m., about four and a half hours after the incident, Nikai, who heads the Nikai faction to which Imamura belongs, told reporters, "I would like to sincerely apologize (about Imamura's comment) to the people. I have told the prime minister that he (Imamura) has decided to hand in his resignation."

Earlier, when Imamura made the gaffe about Fukushima voluntary evacuees on April 4, Abe defended him, saying, "I want Minister Imamura to continue to put his full efforts toward recovery of disaster-hit areas while standing by those hit hard by the disaster," during an April 6 House of Representatives plenary session. While Imamura was also criticized about his attitude during the April 4 news conference where he yelled, "Shut up," at a reporter, Abe did not pressure him to resign then.

Meanwhile, the latest incident comes after a string of foot-in-mouth incidents by members of the Abe Cabinet amid the prime minister's dominance in the party.

In March, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told a Diet session that as an attorney she had never represented scandal-hit school operator Moritomo Gakuen when in fact she had served as the group's representative in a civil lawsuit. Meanwhile, Kozo Yamamoto, state minister in charge of regional revitalization, told the audience at a seminar held in the Shiga Prefecture capital of Otsu on April 16 that "curators are the No. 1 cancer" to the promotion of tourism because they lack "a spirit for serving tourists," and need to be "wiped out." Both ministers have been forced to retract and apologize for their remarks.

Abe did not make these ministers resign even after their gaffes out of concerns that one minister's resignation could give momentum to the opposition and lead to a series of resignations by ministers.

This time, however, Imamura's remarks were undoubtedly disrespectful toward people in disaster-hit areas, and public criticism would certainly target the Abe administration as a whole if he was retained in the Cabinet.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Abe has been asked tough questions by the opposition regarding the Moritomo Gakuen scandal in the current Diet session. The ruling coalition and opposition parties have also clashed head-on over deliberations on the controversial bill to revise the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, which would establish a clause to criminalize "preparations to commit crimes such as terrorism" by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election is also coming up on July 2. Under these circumstances, Abe essentially had no option but to have Imamura resign. Abe's earlier decision to keep Imamura in the position, therefore, indicates that the prime minister had misjudged the seriousness of the matter.

Diet affairs chief Yoshinori Oguchi of the LDP's coalition partner Komeito slammed Imamura's remarks, telling reporters, "His comment was something that should not be said." Oguchi met with Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda and his counterpart Wataru Takeshita -- both LDP lawmakers -- and protested over Imamura's gaffe, saying that it was an "outrageous and grave" comment. Oguchi also said that the LDP pair told him that they were taking the matter seriously.

Even Imamura's fellow LDP members could not defend him. Takeshita told reporters, "Why did he make that kind of comment? I'm almost in a rage thinking about how the people in disaster-hit areas must feel."

A source close to the prime minister expressed concern, telling the Mainichi Shimbun, "The reconstruction minister's resignation would give the opposition momentum. It could result in a disaster if the administration doesn't pull itself together."

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