Japan minister slammed for gaffe over nuke crisis

By MARI YAMAGUCHI | September 9, 2011 | 11:25 AM EDT

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2011 file photo, Japan's new Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yoshio Hachiro speaks during a press conference at prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan. Hachiro has come under fire after calling the area around the tsunami-hit nuclear power plant "a town of death." Hachiro apologized later Friday, Sept. 9, 2011, over the remark criticized as being insensitive to residents who had to evacuate homes because of radiation leak from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, File)

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's new trade minister apologized Friday for calling the now-desolate area around the tsunami-hit nuclear power plant "a town of death," a remark seen as insensitive to residents who had to evacuate because of radiation leaks.

Yoshio Hachiro took office just a week ago as a new government replaced leaders seen as unable to move Japan past the triple disaster six months ago.

His comment came as he described his visit a day earlier to inspect damage and cheer workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

"Sorry to say, there was not a single soul in areas around the plant," Hachiro told reporters. "Literally it was like a town of death."

Three of its six reactors melted down, releasing massive amounts of radiation that have tainted the surrounding environment. About 80,000 people were forced to evacuate and may not be able to return for years because of radiation dangers.

While the March 11 earthquake and tsunami left about 21,000 people dead and missing along Japan's northeast coast, no deaths have been blamed on radiation.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and other top officials visited the plant and talked to the workers struggling to bring the plant to a cold shutdown by early next year.

Hachiro said he regretted what he said and apologized a few hour later.

"I sincerely regret the remark that was misleading. I take it back and deeply apologize," he said. "I only wanted to show my commitment to decontaminate the area and take other steps so that residents can return to the area."

He said he did not mean deaths specifically but was trying to describe the emptiness of the town because he felt strongly about trying to make the area livable again.

Opposition leaders quickly jumped on Hachiro's remark, threatening to nail him at Parliament, likely creating a rocky start for Noda, who delivers his first policy speech Tuesday.

"The words that hurt the feelings of the evacuees was unforgivable," said Tadamori Oshima, a senior lawmaker belonging to the largest opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

Another opposition leader Yoshimi Watanabe called the comment "outrageous," demanding his questioning at Parliament. "He should be condemned."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said his colleague's comment was "inappropriate" but shouldn't disqualify Hachiro as minister.