Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma apologized Sunday for saying the U.S. atomic bombings of Japan during World War II "couldn't be helped," a news report said, in an apparent move to contain damage ahead of parliamentary elections this month.

"I am sorry if my comments gave the impression I disrespect the victims," Kyodo News agency quoted Kyuma as saying at a news conference in Nagasaki, where he is from. "I will refrain from making such comments."

The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, in the world's only nuclear attacks.

Officials at the defense ministry and Kyuma's office were not immediately available for comment Sunday.

In a speech Saturday, Kyuma said, "I understand that the bombing ended the war, and I think that it couldn't be helped." His comments drew sharp criticism from survivors, and some opposition lawmakers called for his dismissal.

"The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed the two cities at once ... killing hundreds of thousands of people," said Terumi Tanaka, secretary-general of Nihon Hidankyo, an A-bomb survivors group.

"His remarks are nothing but verbal abuse. ... We demand the minister retract his comments immediately," Tanaka said in a statement late Saturday.

The opposition Social Democratic Party called for Kyuma's removal from office.

"We will question Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe's appointment of him and we will call for the minister's dismissal," party policy chief Tomoko Abe said Sunday on TV Asahi before the apology was reported.

The defense minister, who came under fire earlier this year for calling the U.S. invasion of Iraq a "mistake," tried to quell criticism by saying his comments had been misinterpreted. Kyuma told reporters late Saturday he meant to say the bombing "could not be helped from the American point of view."

The embarrassment came as Abe's scandal-tainted government struggles to gain support from voters ahead of July 29 upper house elections.

Recent polls show support for Abe's Cabinet has plummeted to about 30 percent from 70 percent when he took office in late September.

Political scientist Jiro Yamaguchi said Sunday the incident underscores the lack of Abe's leadership and bodes ill for his government.

"This will damage the credibility of the Liberal Democratic Party and Abe's administration as a whole, and will become one factor to accelerate things to go in the wrong direction, if not dealing a fatal blow," said Yamaguchi of Hokkaido University. "The elections will be a tough one for the LDP."

On Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, killing at least 140,000 people. Three days later it dropped another on Nagasaki, where city officials say about 74,000 died. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945.

Bombing survivors have developed various illnesses, including cancer and liver diseases, from radiation exposure.

In the United States, the bombs were widely seen as a weapon of last resort against an enemy that was determined to fight to the death, but instead surrendered unconditionally six days after Nagasaki was attacked.

Critics — including many Japanese and some Americans — believe U.S. President Harry Truman's government had other motives: a wish to test a terrifying weapon and the need to strengthen Washington's hand against Moscow in what would become the Cold War.