JAPAN | Matsumoto resigns as rebuilding minister in another blow to Kan

Posted on July 5, 2011

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JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | July 05, 2011

Ryu Matsumoto leaves the news conference room after announcing his resignation on July 5. (Toshiyuki Takeya)

Ryu Matsumoto resigned July 5 as state minister in charge of rebuilding after nine days of offending leaders in disaster areas, threatening journalists and putting Prime Minister Naoto Kan in an even tighter predicament.

Kan tried to persuade Matsumoto to change his mind in a morning meeting. But Matsumoto insisted he would step down from the Cabinet post that was newly created to speed up reconstruction from the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

“I felt that I had tried to move closer to the disaster victims than anyone else, but I want to extend my heartfelt apologies for offending the victims because my comments were insufficient or rough,” Matsumoto said at a news conference. “From now, I will engage in the rebuilding process as an individual lawmaker.”

The debacle has already fueled calls that Kan immediately follow Matsumoto’s example from not only the opposition parties but also within the Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling coalition.

“The damage to the government is huge,” Mikio Shimoji, secretary-general of the coalition partner People’s New Party, said. “I hope they pick a state minister as soon as possible to work on behalf of the disaster areas.”

Kan did select Tatsuo Hirano, a senior vice minister in the Cabinet Office, to replace Matsumoto on July 5. Hirano represents the Upper House district in Iwate Prefecture.

Matsumoto was appointed state minister on June 27 after the Diet enacted the basic law on the rebuilding process. But he immediately acted in a manner that raised questions about his suitability for the position, such as wearing sunglasses at news conferences held indoors.

He exacerbated matters during meetings July 3 with the governors of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures.

“While we will help those areas that come up with ideas, we will not help those who have no ideas,” he told Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso.

He also told Tasso, “Because I am from Kyushu, I don’t know what cities in the Tohoku region are in what prefectures.”

In his meeting with Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai, Matsumoto pointed to the governor’s proposal to concentrate fishing ports damaged by the disasters in a smaller number of areas.

“So you at the prefectural office should get a consensus,” Matsumoto said. “Otherwise, we won’t do anything.”

He also scolded Murai for entering the meeting room after Matsumoto and his contingent had arrived, and then warned reporters not to print anything about his comments to the governor.

Murai later said, “There is not a relationship of ‘master and servant’ between the central and local governments.”

Despite Matsumoto’s threat to reporters, video footage of his behavior spread over the Internet, and then on television, fueling the criticism against the state minister.

Matsumoto later apologized for his comments on July 4, but also indicated he had no plans to resign.

The growing outrage forced him to change his mind.

Kan told a Cabinet meeting on July 5 that Matsumoto said he wanted to resign because his comments had caused problems in the disaster areas and could become a barrier to not only Diet deliberations but also the rebuilding process.

At a separate news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Matsumoto’s resignation took both him and Kan by surprise.

“We have caused many inconveniences to the disaster victims,” Edano said before Kan picked Hirano as Matsumoto’s replacement. “We want to select a successor as soon as possible and make the maximum effort to limit the effects on the rebuilding process to a minimum.”

Kan’s government wants to put together a basic plan for the rebuilding process by the end of July to serve as a precondition for the third supplementary budget, which will include full-fledged rebuilding measures.

Passage of that budget was already in doubt, given the opposition bloc’s demand that Kan step down first. Matsumoto’s resignation deals a further blow to an administration that appears to be on its last legs.

“We will pursue Kan’s responsibility for appointing Matsumoto,” Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary-general of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said. “The best way to contribute toward the rebuilding process is to have the Kan Cabinet quit as soon as possible.”

LDP chief Sadakazu Tanigaki suggested Matsumoto’s resignation had more to do with his boss than with his gaffes.

“It was likely an act that expressed the fact that he could no longer stand to work under Prime Minister Kan,” Tanigaki said.

New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said: “(Matsumoto’s) words were just too terrible. This resignation shows that the government could not have continued with the rebuilding process with such a state minister in office.”

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Comments by Matsumoto

On July 3, in a meeting with Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso

“This is the kickoff.” (After kicking a soccer ball with a message of encouragement to Tasso)

“Because I am from Kyushu, I don’t know what cities in the Tohoku region are in what prefectures.”

“While we will help those areas that come up with ideas, we will not help those who have no ideas. You hold such a feeling.”

On July 3, in a meeting with Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai

“Regarding the maritime industry, you said you wanted to concentrate (fishing ports damaged by the disasters) from one-third to one-fifth, so you at the prefectural office should get a consensus on that. Otherwise, we won’t do anything. You’d better get these things done right.”

“(The governor) entered (the meeting room) after I did, but when you are receiving guests, you must enter the room first and then call in the guests. Listen to me, that is what they do in the Self-Defense Forces (to which Murai once belonged) where they understand the respect that should be shown to those who are senior. Do you understand? You had better shape up.”

“That last comment is off-the-record. Do you all understand? If any of you write about it, that will be the end of your company.” (To reporters covering the meeting)

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