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Angry minister unfit for his charge

April 7, 2017

Editorial: 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.



April 6, 2017

EDITORIAL: Angry Imamura not sympathetic to Fukushima evacuees



Masahiro Imamura, the minister in charge of rebuilding from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, doesn’t seem to have a sufficient grasp of the complicated situation in which Fukushima evacuees are trapped.

Asked about the government’s responsibility for providing assistance to the so-called voluntary evacuees at an April 4 news conference in Tokyo, Imamura said: “They are responsible for their own lives. They can file a lawsuit or do other things (if they disagree with the central government’s position).”

He was referring to people who fled areas that were not subject to the government’s evacuation orders issued after the catastrophic accident broke out at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

When a journalist repeatedly asked questions about the way the government provides support for such people, Imamura became enraged and stormed out of the news conference.

Later he apologized to reporters for becoming “emotional,” but did not retract his earlier remarks, saying he made an “objective statement.”

The minister apparently tried to point out differences in the situation between people ordered to evacuate their homes and those who voluntarily left their towns and cities. But his remarks included some elements that raise questions that are too important to be ignored.

Many of these voluntary evacuees decided to leave their communities after a lot of thinking as they found it impossible to get rid of their anxiety about the radiation level standards used by the government to issue evacuation orders.

More than 20,000 people are living as such voluntary evacuees across the nation. Many of these have been separated from other members of their families. Some are suffering from destitution.

They receive far less compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled nuclear plant, and far less support from the government in terms of temporary housing and other aspects than people who received evacuation orders.

Even if they decided to leave their homes on their own, the fact remains that they are also victims of the nuclear accident.

Saying they are responsible for their own decisions indicates a disturbing lack of understanding of the responsibility the government should bear due to its long history of promoting nuclear power generation as a national policy.

His statement that voluntary evacuees can file a lawsuit if they choose to is nothing but an outrageous outburst of arrogant defiance.

More than 10,000 people affected by the nuclear disaster have filed lawsuits seeking compensation from the electric utility and the government.

In March, the Maebashi District Court issued a ruling holding the government and the utility accountable for the disaster and ordering them to pay compensation to evacuees.

But taking such a legal action requires a lot of time and trouble. Does the minister say the victims should shoulder this heavy burden?

Imamura has a history of making controversial remarks that are criticized for being out of tune with the feelings and realities of victims of the nuclear disaster.

Speaking in a January meeting about the reconstruction of Fukushima, which is finally beginning to make significant progress with the recent lifting of the evacuation orders for certain areas, Imamura said the process had reached the 30-kilometer mark, using a marathon metaphor.

Appearing in a TV program in March, he said, “It is easy for people to leave their homes, but I hope the evacuees will show their commitment to returning home and hang in there.”

Only a minority of Fukushima evacuees have decided to return home. Many are opting to remain living as evacuees for the time being because of concerns about their livelihoods and radiation.

Many evacuees, however, also express their desires to maintain connections with their homes.

Imamura’s latest remarks have hurt the feelings of many evacuees struggling with various difficult problems and deserve to be criticized for not giving sympathetic attention to victims.

He should be aware of the government’s responsibility for paying serious attention to the diverse voices of disaster victims and taking necessary steps in response to their needs in addition to making efforts to help evacuees return home.



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