TOKYO, Apr 11, 2019, Kyodo. Japan’s Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada resigned Wednesday after coming under increasing pressure over a series of gaffes — in the latest, saying politics is “more important” than the recovery of the country’s northeastern region devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, reported the Kyodo.
“I felt I had to take responsibility and submitted my resignation” to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Sakurada, who was in charge of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics Games to be hosted by Tokyo, told reporters.
Abe virtually sacking the 69-year-old is a setback to his administration seeking to showcase the Tokyo Games as a symbol of Japan’s recovery from the disaster that led to the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
After accepting his resignation letter on Wednesday night, Abe then publicly apologized for appointing Sakurada as the Olympics minister.
“As prime minister, I’d like to apologize to people in the disaster-stricken area for the remarks (made by Sakurada),” Abe told reporters. “I bear responsibility for having appointed him.”
“We need to straighten up and make sure we can run the event without a problem,” a senior Japan Olympic Committee official said.
In mid-March, the head of the committee, Tsunekazu Takeda, said he will step down when his current term ends in June, as he is under investigation by French authorities for alleged bribery related to Tokyo’s successful bid for the Tokyo Olympics.
Sakurada’s resignation comes less than a week after a senior vice minister at the land ministry, Ichiro Tsukada, was forced to quit following comments suggesting he had acted in the interests of Abe’s constituency over a road project.
Sakurada is the eighth Cabinet minister to resign since Abe returned to power in 2012. As Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party gears up for a series of elections through July, the prime minister’s decision to oust Sakurada from the government is seen as a damage-control effort.
Former Olympics minister Shunichi Suzuki, 65, will replace Sakurada, according to a government source.
At a fund-raising party in Tokyo for an LDP lawmaker from the northeastern region, Sakurada said the lawmaker, Hinako Takahashi, is “more important than the (region’s) recovery.”
The remarks came on top of earlier ones that had already prompted opposition parties to step up calls on Sakurada to step down.
In February, he said he was “very disappointed” over swimming gold medal hopeful Rikako Ikee’s diagnosis of leukemia — a comment on the potential absence of the star from the Tokyo Games that elicited a huge backlash.
Sakurada, while attending a parliamentary session, also said he has heard of the Olympic Charter but has never read it.
In March, reflecting his lack of knowledge about the situation in the northeastern region, Sakurada said traffic was smooth on highways linking the Tohoku and Kanto areas in 2011 even as they were indeed damaged by the disaster.
Sakurada, first elected to the House of Representatives in 1996, then called the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the hardest-hit prefectures, “Ishimaki” more than once during a parliamentary session on Tuesday.
Opposition party leaders and residents in the northeastern region view his resignation as a natural turn of events.
Yukio Edano, who heads the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said his latest remarks are “unbelievable.”
“The remarks are those that hurt people affected by the disaster,” Edano told reporters. “The responsibility now lies with Prime Minister Abe who has continued to defend Mr. Sakurada.”
“We are still halfway toward the recovery” said Shigeru Yamazaki, a 70-year-old resident in Iwate Prefecture, who just resumed his clothing business in February after his shop was destroyed by the tsunami eight years ago.
“There are many people who are still struggling. His resignation won’t settle everything,” Yamazaki said.
Senior officials from the Tokyo metropolitan government said they are concerned the remarks could undermine the image of the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics.
“The comments are beyond acceptable and it’s unthinkable for someone representing the nation to say such things,” a senior metropolitan government official said.