Photo/IllutrationFumiaki Matsumoto talks to reporters on Jan. 26 after submitting his resignation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (Takeshi Iwashita)

Fumiaki Matsumoto, a Cabinet Office state minister, resigned Jan. 26 for appearing to mock the seriousness of a spate of U.S. military helicopter accidents in Okinawa Prefecture.

During the Jan. 25 Lower House plenary session, Kazuo Shii, the head of the Japanese Communist Party, touched upon repeated emergency landings made recently by U.S. military helicopters.

Sitting among other Lower House members, Matsumoto blurted out, "How many people died as a result?"

Matsumoto met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Jan. 26 and tendered his resignation, which was accepted.

After the meeting, Matsumoto spoke to reporters to apologize to Okinawa residents and the public at large for his insensitive outburst that appeared to make light of concerns in the southernmost prefecture about the U.S. presence there.

"What I said led to the misunderstanding that there would be no problem as long as no one died," Matsumoto said.

Ironically, in a previous stint as Cabinet Office state minister, Matsumoto handled matters related to Okinawa and the Northern Territories.

Akira Koike, a JCP executive, said Jan. 26, "His rant also goes against the prime minister's repeated responses in the Diet that the government would secure the safety (of U.S. military aircraft)."

Okinawa predictably reacted with outrage to Matsumoto's blunder.

"Does the government intend to not take any action until someone dies?," asked Takehiro Kamiya, head of the Midorigaoka nursery school in Ginowan, where the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is located.

A cylindrical object from a helicopter was found on the roof of the school building in December, apparently after it had fallen off during a flight.

"He has no qualification to be a politician who should protect human rights," Kamiya said Jan. 26, adding that he assumed the central government wanted to put the matter behind it as quickly as possible because the Nago mayoral election campaign will officially start Jan. 28.

The Henoko district of Nago is the planned site for relocating the Futenma base, and the mayoral election is expected to pit the anti-base incumbent against a candidate backed by the central government.

Tonaki Mayor Suguru Tobaru, another local official flabbergasted by Matsumoto's comment, said: "An attack helicopter suddenly landed at a heliport in our village. Imagine how local residents felt at seeing that. I cannot understand at all how he would even think about bringing up an example involving death."

A U.S. military AH-1 attack helicopter made an emergency landing on Tonakijima island on Jan. 23, the third such emergency this month in Okinawa.