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Anger in disaster-hit areas forced Olympics minister to resign over gaffes

Anger among local residents and assembly members in areas hit by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster over a series of gaffes by Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada led to his resignation.

Sakurada stepped down on April 10 as minister responsible for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics that are designed to contribute to disaster recovery, in order to assume responsibility over his offending comments.

The gaffe that directly forced Sakurada to decide to step down was made during a fundraising party for Hinako Takahashi, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member of the House of Representatives. "Ms. Takahashi is more important than restoration. Please extend your assistance," he told the gathering. Takahashi is from Iwate Prefecture hit hard by the disaster.

Tomokazu Iwasaki, an LDP member of the Iwate Prefectural Assembly who serves as secretary-general of the party's prefectural chapter, was furious over Sakurada's comments.

"It's extremely regrettable. I have nothing else to say. He ridiculed disaster-hit areas," said Iwasaki, who is from the prefecture town of Otsuchi where nearly 10 percent of residents died or went missing after being hit by tsunami.

Iwasaki pointed out that the minister's gaffe "lessened the significance of holding the disaster recovery Olympics," adding that his remarks are "not just regrettable but outrageous."

In March, Sakurada made remarks based on his misunderstanding of damage the disaster caused to local roads during a rally held in his home constituency, saying that "national routes and the Tohoku Expressway were functioning without problems" in the wake of the disaster. He subsequently apologized for the comments.

During a session of the House of Councillors Cabinet Committee on April 9, Sakurada mispronounced the disaster-hit city of Ishinomaki as "Ishimaki" three times.

Kazuo Ito, 72, chairman of the Ishinomaki City Amateur Athletic Association who has campaigned to have the city chosen as the starting point of the Olympic torch relay, called into question whether Sakurada was fit to serve as a politician.

"I wonder whether he is qualified as a politician. It's regrettable that the Olympics that are supposed to contribute to restoration of disaster areas have become a topic of conversation in a way like this," said Ito.

Sakurada, who heads the LDP's Chiba Prefecture chapter, is in a position to lead the party's campaigning for nationwide local elections in the prefecture.

However, LDP members of the Chiba Prefectural Assembly lamented that Sakurada's gaffe could adversely affect the party's chances of winning the second round of local elections on April 21.

"He's hopeless. His remarks dealt a fatal blow to himself. As the state land minister (belonging to the LDP) has stepped down, voters may think, 'not again,'" said an LDP member, who won the prefectural assembly election that was held as part of the first round of the local elections on April 7.

"The LDP will certainly face adverse winds during the campaign for the second half of nationwide local elections. I'm afraid that the LDP can't garner swing votes and will face an uphill battle," said another LDP member of the prefectural assembly.

An LDP member of the Funabashi Municipal Assembly in Chiba Prefecture, who is seeking re-election in the second half of the local elections, said, "I'll do my best, thinking that the gaffes have nothing to do with me." The official campaigning for the municipal assembly contest kicks off on April 14.

Experts have pointed out that Sakurada's gaffes reflect the arrogance of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been in power for more than six years since late 2012.

"In responding to questions from legislators in the Diet, the minister (Sakurada) only read statements (prepared in advance by bureaucrats) and didn't show any sympathy with residents of disaster-hit areas," said photojournalist Natsuki Yasuda, who has covered disaster-hit areas. "He appears unaware that there are disaster victims who have barely managed to survive and have even lost the energy to get angry over such remarks"

Political analyst Atsuo Ito criticized Prime Minister Abe for taking so much time before ousting Sakurada from his Cabinet.

"Sakurada's latest remarks can't be ignored by simply saying, 'not again.' There were many opportunities to sack him in the past. His dismissal came too late," Ito lamented. "For him to make such a gaffe over disaster recovery indicates that he lacks awareness of his position as minister in charge of disaster recovery Olympics. The latest problem reflects the self-conceit and arrogance of the Abe Cabinet, which was formed based solely on recommendations by intraparty factions."

(Japanese original by Tomoko Fujii, Morioka Bureau, Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Bureau, Yuki Machino, Chiba Bureau, and Kohei Chiwaki, City News Department)

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