Japan's trade minister resigns after joke

Japan’s new trade minister Yoshio Hachiro has resigned after making a joke about radiation six months after a tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to melt down, contaminating nearby homes, farms and businesses and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

"A series of my remarks caused serious distrust among the poeple, especially the people of Fukushima," Hachiro explained at a late-night news conference on Saturday, The Associated Press reports. "I seriously reflected on my remarks, and I made the decision to step down." Hachiro had spent just eight days on the job.

According to the New York Times:

The problem began on Thursday, after Mr. Hachiro returned from a trip to evacuated areas around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. According to Japanese newspaper reports, Mr. Hachiro, who was wearing protective clothing, moved as if to wipe his sleeve against a reporter and jokingly said, “Look out, radiation!”

The jest caused outrage largely because Mr. Hachiro’s ministry, which was in charge of promoting as well as regulating nuclear power, has been widely blamed for lax oversight that allowed the Daiichi plant to operate without adequate defenses against tsunamis. The plant was crippled by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Hachiro had raised eyebrows by calling the evacuated communities around the plants “dead towns,” a statement seen as insensitive to the approximately 80,000 people who had been driven from their homes by the nuclear accident.

“It was an inappropriate remark,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Saturday, according to the New York Times. “I want to apologize and correct the remark.”

Noda is Japan’s seventh prime minister in five years. Previous administrations have started out strong only to have the public quickly turn against them. According to the AP:

Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, had early approval ratings topping 60 percent that crashed to below 20 percent near the end of his 15-month tenure due to perceptions his government mishandled the tsunami disaster and nuclear crisis.

The next session of parliament begins next week, and Noda is likely to face harsh questioning over his appointment of Hachiro and other ministers, most of whom, like Hachiro, have not held ministerial posts before, the Australian Broadcasting Company reports. “There was already great mistrust of his personnel appointments," independent commentator Atsuo Ito told ABC.