Masahiro Imamura, minister in charge of rebuilding from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, waits for the start of a meeting of the Lower House’s Special Committee for Reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake on April 6.
Rebuild minister says sorry as 28,000 demand his resignation
Under-fire minister Masahiro Imamura apologized and mostly retracted the remarks he made over so-called voluntary evacuees at a tense April 4 news conference in Tokyo, as thousands of protesters demanded his resignation.
Imamura, who is in charge of rebuilding from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, offered the late apology on April 6 after facing fierce criticism from Fukushima evacuees and political rivals.
The same day, four Fukushima evacuees’ groups and their supporters jointly submitted a petition with 28,127 signatures to the Reconstruction Agency in the capital, calling for Imamura’s resignation as the head of the agency.
When asked about the government’s responsibility for providing assistance to the voluntary evacuees at the news conference, Imamura had said: “They are responsible for their lives. They can file a lawsuit or do other things (if they disagree with the central government’s position).” He also shouted at a freelance journalist who pressed him on the issue
He apologized for his outburst to reporters on the evening of April 4, but did not retract his remarks, saying he had made an “objective statement.”
However, Imamura made a U-turn on the morning of April 6 and offered his “sincere apologies” for his words on voluntary evacuees at a meeting for the Lower House’s Special Committee for Reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Imamura asked permission to speak at the beginning of the meeting, and offered a further apology to the freelance journalist he had snapped at and for becoming “emotional” at the news conference, and then explained the other remarks that landed him in hot water.
“’Their own responsibility’ was not the right way of saying it,” the minister said. “I meant to say that they have made their own judgment (not to return).”
Addressing his remark suggesting that evacuees can take legal action if they are unhappy with the government’s decision on the matter, he explained that he was merely “generally speaking” that “asking a court’s decision is an option when an agreement cannot be reached (between two parties).”
Protests against Imamura by Fukushima evacuees began in front of the Reconstruction Agency building on April 5.
The letter accompanying the petition handed on April 6 read, “His remark suggested the nation is renouncing responsibility (to help evacuees), and trampled on evacuees’ feelings.”
Referring to a law passed to support all nuclear disaster victims, the letter continued, “As the minister of the agency responsible, we must question his quality.”
A law has been enacted to support the lives of children and other victims of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant accident regardless of the decisions that victims make about their own futures, such as whether to move permanently or temporarily, or return to their homes in the affected area.
Asked by an opposition party member for his position on the resignation demand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave Imamura his backing.
“I would like him to keep working hard for the speedy rebuilding of the disaster-hit area,” Abe said at the Lower House plenary session on April 6.
Reconstruction minister unfit for his position
The minister in charge of Japan’s recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear disaster, is under fire for saying at an April 4 news conference that “voluntary evacuees” from the Fukushima nuclear disaster are “self-accountable” for their actions, as if to exonerate the government from its responsibility.
The gaffe by Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura came in response to a reporter’s question about his views on the government’s responsibility for voluntary evacuees. He responded, “They are self-accountable (for their actions). It’s up to them.”
In the wake of the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, more than 20,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture voluntarily evacuated from their hometowns located outside government-designated no-go zones, according to a tally by the Fukushima Prefectural Government. Despite the high figure, the prefectural government terminated rent subsidies for voluntary evacuees as of the end of March.
Imamura’s remarks come in the face of a financial predicament for those who choose to stay away from areas affected by the nuclear catastrophe. It is only natural that protests over the minister’s insensible remarks and calls for his resignation have stormed the country.
The minister stated that evacuees’ decision on whether or not to return to their hometowns is up to them. When asked by a reporter whether the government was going to take responsibility for those who left their hometowns voluntarily, he replied that if they are dissatisfied, “they can go to court or whatever.” This nonchalant response appears to betray his honest feelings about the issue.
When the reporter continued his questions, Imamura lashed out, saying, “Get out,” and “Shut up.” Such an attitude from the minister, who doubles as minister in charge of Comprehensive Policy Coordination for Revival from the Nuclear Accident at Fukushima, is appalling.
Voluntary evacuees didn’t evacuate by choice; they are the victims of the country’s unprecedented nuclear catastrophe. The prefectural government insists that the termination of rent subsidies is aimed at promoting their return to their hometowns, but some evacuees cannot go home because they have landed new jobs elsewhere or because their children attend schools in those areas. Many households have a hard time making ends meet, and there are evacuees who remain concerned about radiation.
Overlooking this situation, Imamura talked about self-accountability with an air of indifference, as if to say it couldn’t be helped if evacuees “selfishly” evacuate and opt not to return. Who on earth could call him a minister who stands by disaster victims?
In a class action lawsuit brought by evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture, Gunma Prefecture and other areas, the Maebashi District Court recognized the government’s negligence in the nuclear disaster, but granted a far smaller amount of compensation to plaintiffs than they had demanded. In the meantime, some municipalities have decided to continue financially supporting voluntary evacuees from their own coffers. This could widen the economic gap among evacuees depending on where they live.
The very least the government must do is to address the situation and extend support to voluntary evacuees. Yet Imamura’s astonishing remarks give a wide impression that the government ultimately desires to cast aside nuclear evacuees as soon as possible.
The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have marginalized the post of reconstruction minister. At a government-held memorial ceremony for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March this year, Prime Minister Abe stopped short of referring to the “nuclear disaster” in his speech — which met a backlash from the Fukushima governor and others. The latest gaffe by Reconstruction Minister Imamura represents just how little weight the Abe government has placed on the ongoing nuclear crisis.