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Tomomi Inada: A fierce nationalist takes charge of Japan's defence

Ms Tomomi Inada reviewing an honour guard in her new capacity as Japan's Defence Minister last Thursday.
Ms Tomomi Inada reviewing an honour guard in her new capacity as Japan's Defence Minister last Thursday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A hardliner, her actions will be watched by China, South Korea

Japan's new defence chief Tomomi Inada is no stranger to controversy, and whether the fierce nationalist will resist stoking open wartime wounds as she steers the country through choppy disputed seas will be closely watched.
 

Ms Inada, 57, worships regularly at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours convicted Class A war criminals among the war dead, and has downplayed Japan's wartime role in past remarks that have riled China and South Korea.

Appointed in a Cabinet reshuffle last week, she quickly pledged to promote security links with the two neighbours given the increasingly tense geopolitical environment.

Her appointment - as the second woman in Japan to helm the defence portfolio after newly elected Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike took charge briefly in 2007 - came mere hours after North Korea shot a ballistic missile into Japan's exclusive economic zone for the first time.

But her previous views of the war have come back to haunt her, even though she bit her tongue and was notably less combative in her first media interviews in her new role.

THE MAIN EVENT

Every politician aspires to be prime minister. But this is an ambition that requires ability, the right timing, being in the right circles and a huge dose of luck. My key focus now is to do my job well.

MS TOMOMI INADA, Japan's new Defence Minister.

She has denied the 1937 Nanjing massacre in China occurred, disavowed Japan's role in the comfort women issue and even questioned the legitimacy of the Tokyo war crime trials.

And as the media bombarded her with a series of questions asking her to clarify her views last week, she evaded any straight answers.

"Whether you would describe Japan's actions as an invasion depends on one's point of view. I don't think it is appropriate for me to comment," said the lawyer and accomplished public debater. "(It) is a matter of assessment, not a matter of objective facts. I believe it is objective facts that matter most."

Ms Inada also said she was "not in a position" to discuss the subject of Japan's wartime history, and that such questions were best left to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But what she left unsaid irked China's Defence Ministry so much that it expressed its indignation in a statement. "Her open denial is simply an attempt to cover up Japan's history of aggression... " the ministry said.

"We must point out that facing up to history is the basis for resolving historical problems," it added. "If history is denied, China-Japan relations have no future."

Ms Inada dithered when asked if she intends to keep visiting the Yasukuni Shrine twice a year - on April 28, the date Japan regained sovereignty after the war, and on Aug 15, the date of Japan's surrender.

"It's a matter of one's heart, so I will not say if I will go or if I should or should not worship there," she said, adding: "I will continue to act with proper judgment, as a member of the Cabinet."

Mr Abe stoked tensions with visits to the shrine - seen as a symbol of Japan's militarism - early in his term. But he has since stayed away in a bid to mend frayed ties, though he sent a ritual offering this April in a "personal capacity".

Ms Inada, a mother of two, is among Mr Abe's coterie of allies, rising quickly to take on key posts in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since she entered politics as a Lower House lawmaker in Fukui prefecture in 2005. She was made administrative reform minister in 2012 and became chief of the LDP's policy council two years later.

Her political views are closely aligned with Mr Abe's - she is also a staunch champion of revising the post-war pacifist Constitution.

"I want us to break away from the post-war regime, and make Japan a sovereign nation both in name and reality," she said last year. "And that includes constitutional amendment, the carrying out of which is going to be a historical challenge."

Ms Inada has also sparked diplomatic rows with South Korea, whose media reacted negatively to her appointment. In 2007, she lent her name to an advertisement in The Washington Post claiming no historical documents had been found showing that Korean women were forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese Army. The ad insisted that the women were "working under a system of licensed prostitution that was commonplace around the world at that time".

While both countries have made strides on the comfort women issue - with a pact last year to launch a fund - Ms Inada has openly argued that a comfort woman statue outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul should be removed as a condition for money to be disbursed.

Given her hardline right-wing stance, she has a cause that has surprised many even within the LDP: she has spoken up for Japan's marginalised lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

In May, she attended the Tokyo Rainbow Pride rally, where she vowed to spread the understanding of LGBT issues.

Mr Abe, who has likened Ms Inada to 15th-century French heroine Joan of Arc, is said to be grooming her as a potential successor.

And she has made no secret of her ambitions. "Every politician aspires to be prime minister," she said last week. "But this is an ambition that requires ability, the right timing, being in the right circles and a huge dose of luck. My key focus now is to do my job well."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'A fierce nationalist takes charge of Japan's defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe