Japanese minister quits after reconstruction row

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The Independent Online

Japan's new disaster reconstruction minister resigned today after his widely criticised behaviour during a visit to the quake-devastated north east coast, where he refused to shake a governor's hand, scolded the official and threatened to withhold aid.

In meetings with local governors over the weekend, Ryu Matsumoto appeared arrogant and uncaring, angering residents and political opponents.

He told the governor of Iwate, one of the hardest-hit states, that the government would not help municipalities that did not have good ideas about rebuilding.

In talks with Miyagi governor Yoshihiro Murai, Mr Matsumoto appeared annoyed that he was made to wait for the governor's arrival. He refused to shake Mr Murai's hand when he entered the room and scolded the visibly-surprised governor.

"When a guest comes to visit, do not call up the guest until you have arrived in the room," he told Mr Murai. "Do you understand?"

He then warned journalists in the room not to report his words, but they were widely reported in the media.

Prime minister Naoto Kan appointed Mr Matsumoto to the new post of disaster reconstruction minister last month.

The latest scandal is a new blow to the embattled leader, who faces lacklustre ratings in public opinion polls for his handling of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that Mr Kan accepted Mr Matsumoto's resignation and hoped to appoint a replacement as soon as possible, according to Kyodo News agency.

At a news conference today, Mr Matsumoto did not explain why he resigned and pledged to keep supporting recovery efforts.

"I have many things I would like to say," a teary-eyed Mr Matsumoto said. "But I will be gone from now."

"I felt that I was the person closest to the disaster victims," Mr Matsumoto added. "But I sincerely apologise that my words hurt their feelings because they were insufficient or rough."

Jin Sato, the outspoken mayor of badly-damaged Minami Sanriku, said the minister's comments deeply upset disaster victims already frustrated with the recovery process.

"I have been saying all along that this government has no sense of speed," he said on public broadcaster NHK. "My frank opinion is that this resignation drama is another misstep."

Mr Kan took office just over a year ago. He is Japan's fifth leader in four years.

He has said he is willing to step down, but only after major steps are made towards putting Japan's recovery on solid footing. He has also set several preconditions, including the passage of budget bills and a renewable energy measure.