One of the few genuine improvements that one could have hoped would come out of the most recent cabinet reshuffle in Japan was that the new defense minister would be an improvement over the previous one. The previous defense minister, Ichikawa Yasuo, got off to a stunning start by declaring himself to be an “amateur” on defense policy issues before he was even inaugurated.  It is important to recognize that ministerial portfolios in parliamentary-style democracies like Japan need not necessarily be filled by experts, as they quite often tend to be in the US system where the Defense Secretary in particular tends to be reasonably familiar with defense issues, if not an ex-service member. Nevertheless this was a bit too out of touch for the liking of most Japanese and it surprised no one that Ichikawa went on to commit a number of genuine gaffs/indiscretions during his time as defense minister, the worst being being completely unaware of the 1995 Okinawa Rape incident which was is one of the key post-Cold War catalysts for Okinawan resentment of the US military presence in the islands, and alas, not an unimportant aspect of the current Futenma relocation impasse.  I tend to eye a number of the gaffs and controversies that erupt in Japanese politics quite suspiciously – some of them have a very manufactured and contrived feel about them or in the case of legal transgressions, tend to come out at the most inconvenient possible times for the concerned politician. However Ichikawa’s lack of concern for the role was quite startling and he became fair game.

However, it may have gotten worse. New defense minister Tanaka Naoki has in the first few days managed to reveal his ignorance of both the politics and policy involved in his new role. He has not had to let people know in advance (jp) of his “amateur” (素人) status, like Ichikawa generously did, and what we should expect from Tanaka’s performance in the role.

The political indiscretion was his inability to read the political tea leaves on one of the key issues that has undermined the DPJ from day one of the administration – the Futenma relocation problem. To put a very long story short, within the last few months and few weeks in particular their appears to be a rethinking within the Obama administration of whether pursuing Futenma relocation to Henoko was actually going to be politically possible after all, or even a desirable option given the likely rising costs of the relocation for the two fiscally challenged nations. Perhaps the best clue of the imminent sea change is the recent article by Jeffrey W. Hornung, who has been one of the more prominent academic insider cheerleaders of the Henoko plan and its absolute necessity. Dr Hornung argues that it is indeed time to rethink the realignment of forces roadmap for the alliance. This is quite a turnaround for Professor Hornung who as we have covered here at JSW had previously found it necessary to chide senior members of the US Senate’s Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees for displaying insufficient understanding of US-Japan alliance issues related to the realignment of forces roadmap. Although I cannot ultimately agree with Dr Hornung’s rationalization of why it has suddenly become implausible to continue with the realignment, his recent article is welcome reading and as a Washington insider, is worth paying attention to. Furthermore, in recent days PM Noda has come out and said that he would not ultimately enforce the Henoko transfer on the people of Okinawa, whether through legal or physically coercive means, should the Okinawa governor not agree to the start of construction, as he is legally required to do. This was always suspected to be the case with all Japanese prime ministers, however having it said out loud is quite significant and noteworthy.

So of course Defense Minister Tanaka took this precise moment in time to come out and declare with great earnestness (jp) that it was time to move on with Henoko relocation and that he effectively wanted to see holes being dug up at Henoko by the end of the year. Which of course led to his having to effectively retract the statement not too many hours later.

His policy gaffe was probably even more odd. On a January 15 NHK television program in response to a question on whether the restrictions on the use of weapons in PKO missions by the SDF should be relaxed (one of the 5 PKO principles), Minister Tanaka appeared to start talking about the new 3 Principles of Arms’ Exports (jp) and the allowance in the new 3 principles for the SDF to leave behind key pieces of equipment that may assist nations pursuing nation building.

All of this, of course, was all before his official inauguration (jp) into the new role today.

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I would like to point any readers who have not found their way over to Asia Security Watch yet to the site – if interested one may wish to start with my recent article on the new 3 Principles of Arms’ Exports.

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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