Japan defence minister denies cover-up over UN mission logs

Political watchers believe that Ms Tomomi Inada, who served as LDP policy chief for two years before being named defence minister last August, will likely lose her job as questions swirl over her competence in the wake of a series of gaffes.
Political watchers believe that Ms Tomomi Inada, who served as LDP policy chief for two years before being named defence minister last August, will likely lose her job as questions swirl over her competence in the wake of a series of gaffes.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ministry accused of downplaying troops' activities in South Sudan

Japan's beleaguered defence chief, Ms Tomomi Inada, who is already under fire for a series of gaffes, yesterday denied fresh accusations of a cover-up so as to downplay the security situation in South Sudan.

Japanese troops were deployed in the young African country, which is mired in civil war, from 2012 to May this year as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

At the centre of the current controversy are activity logs that the ministry claimed to have discarded.

The logs were compiled by ground troops from July last year.

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During that month, violence in South Sudan escalated with heavy fighting, which killed at least 300 soldiers and displaced at least 36,000 civilians, according to South Sudan government and UN estimates.

The logs in question are politically sensitive because Japan, as a war-renouncing nation with little public appetite for aggression, has a Constitution limiting the use of weapons abroad. Also, its troops can be deployed overseas only where a ceasefire is in place.

CONSEQUENCES

We all know that things were getting nasty in South Sudan. If the logs recorded fighting by Japanese troops, what will be the political fallout?

DEFENCE EXPERT TOSH MINOHARA, who says the reluctance to reveal the contents of the logs indicates there could be something amiss.

This is despite expanded security laws enacted last November allowing ground troops to open fire in aid of friendly forces. A report on the controversy published by Kyodo news agency yesterday cited anonymous senior government sources.

Tokyo quickly said it was untrue.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular news briefing yesterday: "Ms Inada has said no such event took place."

Ms Inada said: "It is absolutely not true that we acknowledged the concealment of the logs, nor did we agree to any plan to withhold the truth about the situation."

The latest debacle comes as approval ratings for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet sunk to new lows of under 40 per cent, according to various media polls this month. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was also hammered in Tokyo assembly polls earlier this month at the hands of a young upstart party.

Ms Inada drew heat at a rally speech for the election, when she implied in her appeal for votes that the military and her ministry support the LDP candidate.

She later retracted the remarks.

Mr Abe, too, has come under fire for a separate scandal in which he is accused of having called in favours on behalf of a close friend for the approval of Japan's first veterinary school in 52 years.

Amid public distrust, Mr Abe will be grilled by the opposition when the Diet sits for special hearings slated for next Monday and Tuesday.

And in an attempt to breathe life into his waning political fortunes, Mr Abe is likely to make sweeping changes to the Cabinet in a reshuffle that could take place on Aug 3.

Political watchers believe that Ms Inada, who served as LDP policy chief for two years before being named defence minister last August, will likely lose her job as questions swirl over her competence.

Kobe University defence expert Tosh Minohara told The Straits Times the latest case exemplified an "instinct for self-preservation".

He noted that the claim was that Tokyo need not go public with personal logs as these did not amount to official documents. "If the public was top of mind, that would not be the conclusion as the public has the right to know the facts."

The reluctance to reveal its contents, he said, indicates there could be something amiss. "We all know that things were getting nasty in South Sudan. If the logs recorded fighting by Japanese troops, what will be the political fallout?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'Japan defence minister denies cover-up over UN mission logs'. Print Edition | Subscribe