In an early embarrassment for Japan's eight day-old government, the economy, trade and industry minister resigned Saturday over comments deemed insensitive to evacuees from crisis-hit Fukushima.
Yoshio Hachiro, appointed only eight days ago in the new government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, provoked anger when he called the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant a "shi no machi" or a "town of death".
On Saturday, he denied media reports that after his visit to the nuclear plant, he also made as if he was rubbing his jacket against a journalist, while making a remark to the effect that "I will infect you with radiation".
But he also declined to elaborate on what exactly happened, saying it was during an unofficial meeting with reporters.
The gaffe is an early blow for Noda, Japan's sixth new prime minister in five years, whose government was tasked with restoring momentum and morale following the resignation of the fiercely criticised Naoto Kan.
In a press conference on Saturday, Hachiro, 63, apologised repeatedly and said Noda had accepted his resignation, which came a day before Japan was to mark six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which left 20,000 dead or missing and sparked the nuclear crisis at Fukushima.
"I apologise from the bottom of my heart that my remarks have caused a feeling of mistrust... among Japanese people, especially among people from Fukushima prefecture," Hachiro said.
Noda had pledged his government would boost post-disaster recovery efforts but the early resignation of one of his cabinet ministers will do little to stem an erosion of faith in Japan's leaders following the March calamities.
Out of Noda's 17-member cabinet, 10 including Hachiro are newcomers to ministerial posts.
Hachiro, who accompanied Noda on a tour of the plant and its vicinity on Thursday, had told a news conference: "Unfortunately, there was not a soul in sight in the streets of the surrounding towns and villages.
"It literally resembled a town of death."
Hachiro had quickly apologised for the remark and retracted it.
His "town of death" remark and apparent joking about radiation were widely seen as insensitive and prompted opposition parties to demand Noda dismiss him.
"If you were thinking about the feelings of Fukushima local residents, you wouldn't possibly act like that," said Shigeru Ishiba, a senior member of the leading opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
The "town of death" comment was seen as particularly insensitive because the government cannot provide evacuated Fukushima residents with a firm timetable for their return, amid criticism over how it has handled the crisis.
It has said that some areas near the Fukushima site will be uninhabitable for years due to high levels of contamination.
Tens of thousands remain evacuated from homes, farms and businesses in a 20 kilometre (12 mile) radius around the Fukushima plant and in some pockets beyond after the quake and tsunami sparked reactor meltdowns and the spewing of radiation into the environment.
The government has been slammed by activists and scientists who say the evacuation zone is too small and does not account for unpredictable radiation fallout patterns.
As economy, trade and industry minister, Hachiro was charged with addressing Japan's energy policy amid a post-Fukushima public nuclear backlash, with the majority of the nation's reactors offline for safety tests.
Hachiro's missteps are not the first to affect Noda's administration.
The country's new defence minister described himself as an "amateur concerning security".