Japan PM apologises after minister quits

AFP , Sunday 11 Sep 2011

Japan's new prime minister apologizes as his trade minister resigned after public pressure for describing the no-go zone, around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, as "town of death"

Archive photo of Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, flanked by Trade Minister Yoshio Hachiro (L) in Date, about 60 km (38 miles) from the tsunami crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, Fukushima prefecture, September 8, 2011 (Photo:Reuters)

Japan's new prime minister apologised Sunday after one of his ministers was forced to quit for describing the no-go zone around the disaster-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant as a "town of death".

Yoshihiko Noda came under heavy fire after Yoshio Hachiro stepped down late Saturday as the minister of economy, industry and trade, a post responsible for tackling the nuclear crisis sparked by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

"I profoundly apologise to the people of Fukushima for the incident which has hurt their hearts so much," the premier told reporters Sunday as the country marked six months after the multiple disaster.

"There has been no change in my belief that there will be no revival of Japan without the revival of Fukushima. My government will work hard as one to regain public trust in us."

But opposition leaders and newspaper editorials criticised Noda for picking Hachiro for a 17-member cabinet only nine days ago, with the now-departed minister among 10 members who were newcomers to ministerial jobs.

Hachiro's comments were only the latest in a series of gaffes by new ministers.

"The prime minister should be held responsible for the appointment in a cabinet which he claims to have the right people in the right positions," Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary general of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, told Japanese media.

The business daily Nikkei said: "The prime minister cannot avoid being called to question over the appointment. The incident has become a major blow to the new administration which started with high approval ratings."

Noda, Japan's sixth new prime minister in five years, initially received approval ratings of around 60 percent.

His government is seeking to restore momentum and morale following the resignation of his predecessor Naoto Kan, who had been fiercely criticised for his handling of the post-disaster reconstruction.

After touring the nuclear plant and its vicinity with Noda on Thursday, Hachiro said: "Unfortunately, there was not a soul in sight in the streets of the surrounding towns and villages. It literally resembled a town of death."

He also reportedly joked to a handful of reporters on his return from Fukushima that he would infect them with radiation from his clothing.

Noda's cabinet line-up, including the finance and foreign ministers who are inexperienced in their respective departments, has been widely seen as a product of the premier's desire to appease quarrelling groups within his centre-left Democratic Party.

The conservative Sankei Shimbun said that Hachiro had been picked "as a result of the premier's effort to give top priority to party unity".

Hachiro's misstep was not the first to affect Noda's administration.

The new defence minister described himself as an "amateur concerning security". The health minister, an avowed anti-smoker, called for further increases in the tobacco tax -- an issue that comes under the finance ministry.

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