Much like with the previous two defense ministers, the Japanese media has not let the selection of Professor Morimoto go without comment, albeit for quite different reasons this time around.

One narrative was that of the selection potentially leading to improved relations between the Noda administration and the Obama administration. The US Department of Defense commented (日) to the effect that Morimoto has been a strong supporter of the US-Japan alliance for decades despite considerable political changes, and that they (日) would look forward to working with him in deepening the US-Japan alliance in the context of new security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. They did decline to comment on Morimoto’s unique status as a non-elected defense minister, which has aroused some concern in Japan, saying it was an internal issue. While Japan is a Westminster style parliamentary democracy, one of the many ways it is actually closer to the American system in that cabinet ministers can be selected from outside the Diet – as long as they are not current members of the military (Article 66).

The Yomiuri reported (日) on such concerns with the Morimoto selection. One explicit concern was simply that as a non-elected official the ability for him to “take responsibility” for any action while in office is insufficient compared to those who can lose their “political lives.” There seems to be a division between those who think expertise in the crucial issue of defense is more important than the capacity to win elections, and those like former JDA Chief Ishiba and former minister of defense Ichikawa who believe that the inability to “take responsibility” politically in such a role is a threat to “civilian control” of the military.

Noda pointed out a crucial point himself – that at the end of the day it is the PM who is the effective “commander-in-chief” and thus as long as Morimoto falls in line with the cabinet’s final decision there is no real issue. Nevertheless Jiji points out (日) that while mostly true there are a few cases where the minister of defense has some discretion – for example over whether to shoot down a ballistic missile threat using Japan’s BMD system, or some aspects of MSDF maritime deployments. A non-uniformed SDF official was quoted as wondering whether as a non-elected member he would have the requisite concern for potentially putting JSDF lives at risk.

Comment: These concerns while not completely invalid, seem rather superficial. On the one hand other non-elected ministers of cabinet have in the past been selected for various positions, with only the prime minister being required to be an elected member of parliament. And since the PM (in theory) has the final word on almost all issues, including defense issues, the concern about a non-elected minister being sufficiently ‘responsible’ for the limited amount of discretion he has is somewhat overwrought. Likewise with the concern for the lives of SDF officers. Is there really any reason why an elected official would be more concerned than a non-elected official over making decisions that could cost lives? In fact, knowing what we know about politicians and their ‘sociopathic’ tendencies there could be good reasons for thinking the opposite. Either way it is worthwhile evaluating the person themselves – being elected was certainly no barrier to former defense ministers Ichikawa and Tanaka performing inadequately, which at a more critical time could well have had much more serious implications. Morimoto on the other hand is a seasoned professional and most critically a former SDF officer himself and has strong links with the establishment, and is unlikely to take any decision or give advice lightly.

He also appears to have sufficient respect for political processes.  When asked about whether he would attempt to change the current interpretation of Japan not possessing the constitutional capacity to exercise the right to collective self-defense, he said (日) he would assiduously follow the Noda Cabinet’s decisions and that he had no intention of changing the current arrangements. The reason for this question being asked is because Morimoto is known for his support of Japan exercising this right. However what is not explained in the linked article is that Professor Morimoto is one of the many people who take constitutional processes seriously and believes that the process of ‘changing’ the constitution by “reinterpretation” is dangerous from the point of view of democratic and procedural clarity. See Craig Martin for a good summary of why this is a problem. There are many that believe the only legitimate way for Japan to adopt “collective self-defense” is either through constitutional revision, or by having the Japanese Supreme Court rule on it,* rather than through politicians knocking the CLB around until they got their preferred outcome, such as what happened with Koizumi and what Ozawa Ichiro wanted to do.  I, myself am in the former camp.

Either which way this is new territory and it will be very interesting to see how this “experiment” will work out. It will also be interesting to see if the selection has any impact upon the evolving relationship and the power balance between the MOFA and the MOD – Morimoto has effectively worked for both and he may well add something to the political process around foreign policy making.

* However unlikely the Supreme Court would be to rule in favour of supporters of Japan exercising collective self-defense, although some like Sato Seizaburo would like to give it a crack it would seem.

 Update: Seems that Michael Cucek also had a few useful things to say on the Morimoto appointment here.

Update 2: Consult Peter Ennis’ post on DM Morimoto for an insider’s view.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 51 post(s) on Japan Security Watch