Photo/IllutrationAbe apologizes during a Lower House Budget Committee session Jan. 29. (Takeshi Iwashita)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moved to contain political fallout over Diet heckling that angered Okinawa Prefecture ahead of a key mayoral election there that his ruling party is desperate to win.

“I offer my deepest apologies to the people of Okinawa and Japan,” Abe said Jan. 29 in response to Fumiaki Matsumoto's outburst that cost the Cabinet Office state minister his post.

During the Jan. 25 Lower House plenary session, Japanese Communist Party chief Kazuo Shii touched upon growing safety concerns in Okinawa over repeated emergency landings by U.S. military helicopters.

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

His utterance was widely taken as making light of the issue. Matsumoto offered to resign the following day. It was immediately accepted.

His gaffe came just a week ahead of the mayoral election in Nago city, where local sentiment is running high over the long-running issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

The incumbent, Susumu Inamine, is fiercely opposed to relocating the base to Nago’s Henoko district, while newcomer Taketoyo Toguchi backed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is effectively in favor.

Hiroshi Kawauchi, a member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, urged Abe during a Lower House Budget Committee session Jan. 29 to offer his apologies to the residents of Okinawa Prefecture for Matsumoto's uncalled for remark.

After apologizing, Abe pledged to make every effort to “mitigate the burden on Okinawa" posed by the massive U.S. military presence there.

"This is our consistent policy," he said, adding that he bore responsibility for appointing Matsumoto as Cabinet Office state minister.

As the base relocation issue is the main agenda in Nago’s mayoral election, the Abe administration wanted to minimize the damage by swiftly replacing Matsumoto and admitting fault.

But the opposition parties are unlikely to miss the opportunity to make political mileage from the matter.

Ruling party members began the week rushing to put out the “fire” themselves.

At the outset of a budget committee question session on Jan. 29, LDP lawmaker Teru Fukui rounded on Matsumoto, saying his language “completely ran counter” to the party’s policy.

Konosuke Kokuba, an LDP Lower House member elected from Okinawa Prefecture, called Matsumoto's remark “very regrettable and inappropriate," noting that "the people of Okinawa were deeply hurt.”

Abe then waded into the fray by promising to tackle the unequal burden that Okinawa shoulders over the U.S. bases issue.

Campaigning for Nago’s mayoral election started Jan. 28, ahead of voting Feb. 4 when the outcome will be announced.

The Abe administration has relentlessly pushed the plan to relocate the Futenma base to Nago, which has put it in conflict with Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga.

The mayoral election is expected to be a close contest between Inamine and Toguchi.

Those close to Abe are confident that the political damage has been minimized, although they still expect “some sort of effect” on the election outcome.