Japan's new trade minister resigned Saturday over a remark seen as insensitive to nuclear evacuees, dealing a blow to a government that took office just eight days ago in the hopes it could better tackle the daunting tsunami recovery.
"A series of my remarks caused serious distrust among the poeple, especially the people of Fukushima," Yoshio Hachiro said at a late-night news conference. "I seriously reflected on my remarks, and I made the decision to step down."
He said he informed Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of his decision during an evening meeting. Noda, who took office and installed a new Cabinet on Sept. 2, accepted it after spending most of the day visiting Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, hard-hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Noda, Hachiro and other government ministers were visiting the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Thursday when Hachiro made his verbal gaffe. He called the desolate evacuation zone around the plant "a town of death" and later told reporters he just meant to convey the seriousness of the situation and his commitment to decontaminate it so residents can return.
Sweating heavily under intense questioning by reporters, Hachiro said the remarks "rubbed the feelings of Fukushima people the wrong way" but that he did not intend to be hurtful.
He explained that his words were his honest impression of the area around the plant.
"You can't find a place like that anywhere else but there," Hachiro said. "I couldn't think of any other word but that to describe my feeling."
Hachiro, 63, was less forthcoming about a second comment that also was criticized. According to local news reports, he joked with journalists that radiation he acquired on his clothing during his visit to Fukushima might be contagious.
"It was something I said off-the-record, and I don't want to talk about it any more," he said. The ministers wore protective bodysuits like those of the workers they met at the plant during their visit.
People affected by the disasters, political opponents and even members of the ruling Democrats had strongly criticized his remark.
After the tsunami struck the nuclear plant, three of its six reactors melted down, releasing massive amounts of radiation that have tainted the surrounding environment. About 80,000 people were forced to evacuate and may not be able to return for years because of radiation dangers.
While the earthquake and tsunami left about 21,000 people dead and missing along Japan's northeast coast, no deaths have been blamed on radiation.
The Democrats' policy committee chief, Seiji Maehara, told reporters earlier Saturday it will be important for Hachiro "to clearly explain today what his intentions really were," according to Kyodo News agency.
Political opponents were quick to condemn Hachiro.
"I must say Cabinet ministers are slacking off," said Sadakazu Tanigaki, a senior lawmaker of the largest opposition Liberal Democratic Party. "There is a serious lack of sense of seriousness."
With Hachiro out, Noda will now have to find a quick replacement to lead one of the most powerful ministries in Japan. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry oversees a vast portfolio of policies _ including nuclear energy _ and is a key player in reviving Japan's slumping economy.
Support for the new government started out strong, with an approval rating of 62.8 percent in a Kyodo poll released last Saturday.
Noda is Japan's sixth prime minister in five years. Past leaders have had honeymoon periods of relatively high approval ratings that declined steadily as the public grew impatient.
The honeymoon phase will likely take a hit with Hachiro's quick exit.
Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, had early approval ratings topping 60 percent that crashed to below 20 percent near the end of his 15-month tenure due to perceptions his government mishandled the tsunami disaster and nuclear crisis.
Associated Press Writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.
Follow Tomoko A. Hosaka on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tomokohosaka
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