TOKYO – Japan's ruling bloc lost a key local election on Sunday, a possible bellwether of public support after a Cabinet minister caused an uproar by calling women "birth-giving machines."
The setback compounds the problems for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, which has also lost a minister and a top adviser in separate scandals.
Most recently, Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa infuriated the public by calling the country's women "birth-giving machines" who had to "do their best per head" to stem Japan's falling birthrate.
Yanagisawa quickly apologized, and Abe has repeatedly rebuffed calls from opposition and civic groups for his resignation. But Sunday's weak showing at the polls is expected to increase pressure on Yanagisawa.
The minister told Kyodo News agency he was determined to stay on, despite ruling bloc's poor showing in the election.
"The vote was to pick the helmsman for the local administration," Yanagisawa said. "As for me, I will fulfill the duties I have been given."
Kenji Kitahashi, a former parliamentarian backed by three opposition parties, beat a candidate backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a junior coalition party in a tight mayoral race in the southern city of Kitakyushu.
Public broadcaster NHK projected late Sunday that Gov. Masaaki Kanda of Aichi state in central Japan would keep his seat, but the race with an opposition party-backed candidate was unexpectedly tight. Official results were due early Monday.
A media poll also showed Sunday that for the first time, more Japanese disapprove of Abe than approve — calling the new leader's leadership into question ahead of parliamentary elections in July.
The opinion survey published by Kyodo said support for Abe fell to a low of 40 percent — almost 25 percentage points below a similar poll in September. The poll gave no margin of error.