Abe Minister Resigns Following Gaffe on Japan’s 2011 Earthquake

  • Reconstruction minister said ‘good’ that quake hit Tohoku area
  • Abe replaces Imamura with Fukushima representative Yoshino

Japan’s Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura resigned, a day after apologizing for remarks he made about the country’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Imamura, who oversaw post-disaster reconstruction efforts in northern Japan, submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday morning. The previous day, he said it was "good" the quake struck the Tohoku region rather than Tokyo.

Masahiro Imamura on April 25.

Photographer: Kyodo News via Getty Images

While estimates suggest that damage from the disaster reached 25 trillion yen ($225 billion), "it was still good it was in Tohoku," he told a ruling Liberal Democratic Party event in Tokyo, according to footage carried by public broadcaster NHK. "If this were closer to the Tokyo area, it could have been of enormous proportions," he said. He later retracted the comments.

Abe denounced the remarks, saying they were “hurtful toward people in disaster-stricken areas and incredibly inappropriate." The prime minister chose Masayoshi Yoshino, a lower house lawmaker from Fukushima prefecture, to replace Imamura.

“Reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake has always been a critical mission of my administration," Abe said.

Imamura had already drawn controversy this month after telling a reporter to "shut up" after facing terse questioning at a briefing over remarks he made about evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster that was triggered by the tsunami. Abe defended Imamura amid calls at the time to resign, Kyodo reported.

Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, said the immediate impact on Abe would be limited. A poll published by NHK on April 10 showed support for the cabinet rose two percentage points on the previous month at 53 percent.

‘Emerging Narrative’

"Abe’s weathered worse than the resignation of a minor cabinet minister," Harris said. "It will, however, feed the emerging narrative that the Abe administration is increasingly adrift."

The remarks are the latest in a string of verbal gaffes and scandals that have hit Abe’s cabinet in recent months. Regional revitalization minister Kozo Yamamoto was forced to apologize this month after calling curators of cultural properties a "cancer" that needed to be "eradicated,” local media reported.

Toshinao Nakagawa stepped down from his post as parliamentary secretary for the economy and left the LDP last week, amid a tabloid scandal over an extramarital affair.

Abe himself faced pressure last month over allegations of his involvement in a land deal involving a kindergarten where children are taught the values of prewar imperial Japan. Abe denied any involvement in the affair after his wife Akie was accused of donating cash to the school principal in Abe’s name.

Opposition lawmakers called for Abe to resign if the accusations were proven. However, recent cabinet approval polls have shown Abe’s popularity to be resilient amid his tough stance on North Korea’s recent provocations.

"I have to assume that we’ll see a cabinet reshuffle over the summer -- perhaps bigger than previous ones -- in order to reassert more control heading into the last year of Abe’s term,” Harris said.

— With assistance by Andy Sharp, Isabel Reynolds, and Kazunori Takada

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