Japan's Reconstruction Minister Quits After Offensive Remarks

Japanese reconstruction minister Ryu Matsumoto resigned from his post eight days into the job after offending local earthquake and tsunami victims in the northern region of Japan.

His resignation is a setback to Prime Minister Naoto Kan who is dealing with decreasing approval ratings and is already struggling to pass a bill to fund Japan’s largest reconstruction effort since World War II.

Matsumoto’s resignation came after a TV station aired footage of him acting insensitive to Yoshihiro Murai, the governor of the tsunami devastated region of Miygai. Murai showed up late to a meeting with the reconstruction minister.

When Murai showed up, Matsumoto gave him a disparaging, school-master like lecture stating, “When a guest comes to visit, do not call the guest in until you have arrived in the room. Do you understand?” He went on to say that such bad manners would not be tolerated and that young people were to respect their elders. Matsumoto is senior to Murai by 10 years.

Murai reluctantly stood there and took the lecture. However, afterwards he told the media that he thought the minister’s comments were offensive and disrespectful.

To make matters worse, Matsumoto warned Murai and other governors that the local leaders would not receive aid until a consensus was reached among the leaders concerning post-disaster reconstruction.

“We will try to help those places that come up with ideas to help themselves, but not those that don’t,” Matsumoto told the governor of Iwate Prefecture on Sunday, as quoted by The New York Times. In Japan, rural regions are used to being taken care of by the central government.

Matsumoto then turned toward the media and snapped, "That was all off the record, OK? Understand? You write this up, and it'll be the end for your company," as quoted by The New York Times.

The journalists ignored his threat.

The testy meeting went viral on Youtube and on Tuesday was front-page news in Japan. It has also been a hot topic on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

ABC Tokyo correspondent Mark Willacy stated that the Japanese media has always been fairly meek and would have probably heeded the minister’s threat prior to the March 11th earthquake. However, the unrest in the post-natural disaster Japan has seemed to create a backlash against government censorship among the Japanese media.

Sensing his political demise, Matsumoto apologized on Monday night. He blamed his insensitive remarks on his blood type.

"If I hurt the feelings of the disaster victims, I would like to apologize," he said, according to the Times, "I'm a type B and can have the tendency to be simplistic and straightforward at times. My intentions don't always come across perfectly. My wife called me earlier to point that out. I think I need to reflect on that."

Blaming his blood type is not an outrageous remark in Japan, where blood types are thought to determine personality. The opposing political party took advantage of this controversy to point out another example of Kan’s fumbling leadership in dealing with the disaster and reconstruction.

On Tuesday evening, Kan appointed Tatsuo Hirano as the new reconstruction minister. Hirano is a senior vice minister for national policy.

Kan is struggling to pass various earthquake and energy related bills that he believes Japan needs in order to recover from the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. His popularity, however, has plummeted as his political opposition views him as a weak leader. Kan’s approval ratings are in the 20s.

He has declared that once the bills pass, he will step down.

On Tuesday, Kan’s cabinet passed a budget bill for 2 trillion yen, or 24.7 billion dollars, for reconstruction and compensation to refugees and health checkups for those who lived near the nuclear power plant. The bill will be submitted to Parliament and is expected to be voted on by the end of this month.

Amid cries that Kan should resign earlier, Yukio Edana, the government’s spokesman, said Kan had no intention of stepping down earlier and that to do so while the reconstruction and energy bills were still being debated would be “irresponsible,” according to the Guardian.

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