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FILE PHOTO : Japan's Defense Minister Tomomi Inada (C) is surrounded by reporters after reports of the launch of a North Korean missile, upon her arrival at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan May 14, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, its ratings slipping over suspicions of favouritism, has suffered a fresh embarrassment when his defence minister made politically sensitive remarks just days ahead of a key local election.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, speaking on Tuesday at a rally for ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidates in Sunday's Tokyo Metropolitan assembly election, asked for voter support saying the request was from "the defence ministry, the Self-Defense Forces, the defence minister and the LDP".

By law, the SDF, as Japan's military is known, must be politically neutral. Inada withdrew the remark at an impromptu news conference, saying it could be "misunderstood".

The July 2 vote for the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly is on the surface a referendum on Governor Yuriko Koike's first year in office, but it is also shaping up as a chance for voters in the capital to express their views on Abe's administration.

Koike is aiming for her new "Tokyo Residents First" party and its allies to win a majority in the 127-seat assembly, while the LDP hopes to keep its status as the biggest party.

Abe's support slumped in surveys released last week on voter concerns about suspicions that he helped a friend get permission to open a veterinary school in a special economic zone and criticism his ruling bloc rammed a contentious bill through parliament and ended the session to close off debate.

Abe and his aides have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the approval process for the new school to be run by Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution) 

Inada's remarks prompted a call from the main opposition Democratic Party leader, Renho, for her resignation, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that she had withdrawn her remark and should remain in her post.

The flap follows a widely publicised incident in which a female LDP lawmaker was taped verbally and physically abusing her aide.

The lawmaker has left the LDP. Finance Minister Taro Aso, known for making gaffes of his own, later appeared to blame the incident on the lawmaker's gender. "If you look at her academic background, it’s impeccable, but she is a woman,” Aso was quoted by media as telling LDP members on Saturday.

Media reports said on Wednesday that the LDP, worried about the Tokyo race, was considering asking Shinjiro Koizumi, the popular 36-year-old lawmaker son of ex-premier Junichiro Koizumi, to campaign for its candidates.

(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Michael Perry)

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