TOKYO • Japan's minister in charge of reconstruction of disaster-hit Tohoku region resigned yesterday, following a remark that it was lucky the catastrophic 2011 earthquake- tsunami had struck a largely rural region rather than Tokyo.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had to apologise to residents of devastated Tohoku, still recovering more than six years on, after the gaffe-prone Masahiro Imamura sparked outrage on Tuesday with his words: "It was good that it (the disaster) occurred over there in Tohoku.
"If it'd been close to the capital zone, there would have been enormous damage."
A massive undersea quake on March 11, 2011 had sent a tsunami barrelling into Japan's north-eastern coast, leaving more than 18,500 people dead or missing and sending three reactors into meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
After submitting his resignation, Mr Imamura said he deeply regretted the comments. "I caused great trouble to the people of Tohoku and hurt their feelings. I'm very sorry," he told reporters, bowing.
Mr Abe, who was at the same political gathering on Tuesday, apologised to guests soon after Mr Imamura's remarks, saying they were "extremely inappropriate".
The remarks "hurt the feelings of people in the disaster-hit areas", a grim-faced Mr Abe said yesterday in further comments on the incident. "As Prime Minister, I'd like to apologise deeply to the people in the disaster-hit areas." He said he will replace Mr Imamura with Fukushima native and veteran politician Masayoshi Yoshino.
This is not the first time Mr Imamura has courted controversy. He came under fire earlier this month for saying at a news conference that people who had yet to return to those areas deemed safe by the government in Fukushima are "responsible for themselves". He then tried to eject a journalist whose question about evacuees had led to the remarks, shouting: "Get out!"
Mr Abe's approval rating, though still above 50 per cent, has fallen, as scandals erode public confidence.
A vice-economy minister resigned last week after a magazine reported on an extramarital affair. That came just weeks after vice-minister for reconstruction Shunsuke Mutai resigned. He had joked last month that the "(rubber) boot industry made money", after a typhoon claimed 19 lives in Iwaizumi town last year.