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Japan's State Minister in charge of Reconstruction Masahiro Imamura speaks at a news conference at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese cabinet minister overseeing reconstruction of areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster resigned on Wednesday after saying it was better the disaster struck the northeastern region instead of Tokyo.

Masahiro Imamura was forced to quit after remarks he made on Tuesday at a party for ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers and is the latest in a spate of ruling party lawmakers in trouble for their comments or behaviour.

Speaking of the costs incurred in the 9.0 earthquake that set off a massive tsunami and left nearly 20,000 dead or missing, Imamura said: "It was better that this happened in the northeast."

The comments came just weeks after Imamura set off a furore at a news conference by disparaging people who left Fukushima out of fear after the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, then shouting at a reporter and storming out of the room.

Imamura's comments prompted an immediate rebuke from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who apologised on his behalf. His swift resignation was seen aimed at minimizing the damage to Abe's government, which has been accused of complacency in the absence of a viable opposition.

"It was an extremely inappropriate comment and hurtful to people in the disaster zone, an act causing the people a reconstruction minister works for to lose trust in him, " Abe told reporters after Imamura resigned.

The subject still touches a raw nerve because regional businesses have struggled to recover and reconstruction work has been slow. Many evacuee families have also given up hope of returning to their home towns.

Shunsuke Mutai, a deputy reconstruction minister, drew fire last year after forcing a subordinate to carry him on his back so his feet could stay dry as he visited a flooded area. He quit in March on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the March 11 disaster after making a joke about the incident.

A week ago the vice minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Toshinao Nakagawa, was forced to resign from his position after news broke of an extramarital affair. He later resigned from the LDP.

Abe's support currently hovers around 50 percent despite a series of recent scandals, including one involving a nationalist school. He has a shot at becoming Japan's longest-serving leader after party rule chances allow him to serve a third consecutive three-year term after his current tenure ends in 2018.

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Perry)

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