TOKYO – 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.
"To the people of Japan and especially Fukushima prefecture, I apologize for causing deep distrust," Yoshio Hachiro said at a late-night news conference.
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.
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.