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Japan minister quits over gaffe in fresh blow to PM
by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) July 5, 2011

Japan's embattled Premier Naoto Kan suffered another blow Tuesday as his disaster reconstruction minister quit, having caused a furore with scathing remarks to leaders of tsunami-hit regions.

Ryu Matsumoto, 60, left the post he had assumed only a week earlier after he caused an outcry by giving a rough dressing-down before television cameras to a regional leader because he showed up to a meeting a few minutes late.

Matsumoto also sought to bully attending journalists into keeping the incident quiet, but instead saw his terse comments aired on TV and turned into a YouTube sensation, prompting a hailstorm of calls for him to resign.

The latest foot-in-mouth scandal to claim the scalp of a Japanese politician piled more pressure onto Kan, Japan's fifth premier in as many years, who is already under intense pressure to resign just over a year into his post.

In a stand-off with the conservative opposition and members of his own centre-left party, Kan has promised to step down soon, but only once several bills on disaster recovery and renewable energy are passed.

His enemies, in turn, have threatened to block key bills unless he goes.

The political bickering threatens to paralyse Japan's government as the country struggles to recover from its worst post-war disaster, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that sparked the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Kan, whose approval rating plunged below 20 percent in one recent poll, gave Matsumoto, then environment minister, the new portfolio of disaster reconstruction minister in a minor cabinet reshuffle last week.

But Matsumoto's tenure was short-lived -- even by the standards of Japan's volatile politics -- and on Tuesday he became the fourth minister under Kan to leave the cabinet, either in protest or because of a scandal.

Matsumoto sparked uproar at the weekend when he met the governors of two tsunami-hit prefectures, where vast areas remain devastated wastelands and tens of thousands of people are still homeless and desperate.

When the governor of the worst-hit Miyagi prefecture, Yoshihiro Murai, appeared a few minutes late for a meeting, Matsumoto refused to shake his hand.

"You came in late," Matsumoto said tersely. "When a guest comes, you have to be here first before you call your guest into the room," he told the 50-year-old governor, who once served in Japan's military.

"The Self-Defense Force does that because they understand the young must honour their elders. Do you understand? Work hard," he said before rolling cameras, then telling journalists to keep his remarks off the record.

In a separate meeting with Iwate governor Takuya Tasso, Matsumoto warned bluntly that the government "will help areas that offer ideas, but will not help those without ideas. I want you to work with that kind of resolve."

When the exchanges were publicised -- with the clips drawing tens of thousands of hits on YouTube and other video-sharing websites -- offended citizens, the media and politicians voiced anger at the minister's tone.

"What is it with this condescending manner?" the liberal Asahi Shimbun asked in an editorial, questioning whether Matsumoto was fit for the job.

In Matsumoto's farewell speech Tuesday, his eyes misty and his voice choked, he conceded that "my words were short and rough and hurt the feelings of people suffering from disaster damage. I apologise."

Kan later appointed a Cabinet Office vice minister, Tatsuo Hirano, 57, to replace Matsumoto, top government spokesman Yukio Edano said. Hirano, a former farm ministry bureaucrat, is originally from Iwate.

It was another bad day for Kan, who has been widely attacked over the slow pace of reconstruction from the quake, the construction of temporary homes for victims, and bringing the nuclear crisis under control.

"Japanese politics is going through a meltdown," said Tetsuro Kato, a political scientist at Tokyo's Waseda University.

"Prime Minister Kan is responsible for appointing a person most ill-suited for the position, which is now the most important post in Japan.

"It is the prime minister himself who should have left by now. This latest incident is a big political mistake that happened while the government is already in a terminal condition."

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Japan proposes second disaster recovery budget
Tokyo (AFP) July 5, 2011 - Japan's cabinet on Tuesday approved a two trillion yen ($24 billion) second special budget to finance relief and rebuilding after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan's cabinet plans to submit the proposed budget to parliament on July 15 and aims to pass it by the end of the month.

The budget sets aside 800 billion yen in reserve for reconstruction, and 275 billion yen to tackle the Fukushima nuclear crisis, including compensation for victims and health checks for local residents.

Already faced with the industrialised world's largest public debt at around 200 percent of GDP, the government will not issue fresh bonds to finance the supplementary budget to March 2012 but plans to instead divert funds left over from last year.

In May, Japan passed a four trillion yen extra budget, the first since the disaster hit and left more than 22,000 people dead or missing. The government plans a third extra budget later this year, with analysts estimating it to be worth 10 trillion yen.

However, analysts warn that political gridlock surrounds those plans and other key economic measures, including a bond issuance bill.

Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Tuesday warned that if opposition parties continue to block the bond issuance bill needed to fund 40 percent of the main budget for the current fiscal year started April the government might have to begin curbing its spending from as early as September.

Lawmakers in the opposition-controlled upper house are demanding Kan resign immediately, and have refused to support a number of key bills until he steps down.

The premier survived a no-confidence vote in June by promising to resign at some point in the future, and has since indicated that he will step down in late August.

The embattled premier took another blow Tuesday as his disaster reconstruction minister quit, having caused a furore with scathing remarks to leaders of tsunami-hit regions.

The government has estimated costs resulting from damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at 16.9 trillion yen, but this does not include expenses associated with the crisis at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant.

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