Japan’s government came under fire in domestic media on Tuesday for its handling of a worsening outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, the latest headache for unpopular Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama with an election just months away.
Voter doubts about Hatoyama’s leadership have already slashed his ratings to around 20 percent ahead of an upper house election his party must win to avoid policy paralysis as Japan struggles to keep a recovery on track while reining in its huge debt.
Media suggested the government’s handling of the outbreak in Miyazaki, southern Japan, had been too tepid, and Hatoyama acknowledged the response might have been better.
“There may have been certain problems in terms of having done everything we could to prevent it spreading,” Kyodo news agency quoted the premier as telling reporters a day after setting up a special task force to deal with the outbreak.
On Tuesday, Miyazaki Governor Hideo Higashikokubaru declared a state of emergency in the prefecture and told residents to refrain from going outside as much as possible. Soldiers have been dispensed to help farmers cope by disposing of carcasses and infected materials.
Animals with foot-and-mouth disease were found in at least 126 farms and facilities in Miyazaki — famed for its tender, high-grade beef — with suspected cases totalling over 114,000 cows, pigs and other livestock, a prefectural official said.
“The affected areas are gradually expanding, moving southwards, although we have not confirmed any evidence of the virus spreading outside the prefecture,” the official said.
Japan suspended beef exports on April 20 after three cows were of suspected of being infected with the disease, the first cases since 2000.
Domestic media said local officials had checked a farm in the area some three weeks earlier but dismissed the possibility that water buffaloes there had the disease. The prefectural official said the animals had not shown the usual symptoms.
Agriculture Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu also came under fire for travelling abroad during Japan’s “Golden Week” holidays in late April-early May.
Some media also suggested the government was distracted by a feud over a U.S. airbase on the southern Japan island of Okinawa, with Hatoyama’s perceived mishandling of the matter contributing to his sinking support rates.
“It would be hard to say that the official response has been sufficient,” the Yomiuri newspaper said in an editorial.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg and Chikako Mogi)