Japanese defence minister Tomomi Inada denies role in new cover-up controversy

Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada delivers her speech during the second plenary session at the 16th Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Shangri-La Dialogue Summit in Singapore on June 3, 2017.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada delivers her speech during the second plenary session at the 16th Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Shangri-La Dialogue Summit in Singapore on June 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan's beleaguered defence chief Tomomi Inada, already under fire for a series of gaffes, on Wednesday (July 19) denied fresh accusations that she agreed to the cover-up of controversial logs in a bid to downplay the security situation in South Sudan.

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

The logs, which the ministry once claimed to have discarded, are politically sensitive because Japan, as a war-renouncing nation, has a Constitution that imposes limits on the use of weapons abroad.

This is despite the mandate, under expanded security laws, granted to ground troops last November to open fire in aid of allies.

The Kyodo news agency cited unnamed senior government sources in its report published on Wednesday, which the government quickly said was untrue.

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

Ms Inada told reporters the same day: "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 have sunk to new lows of under 40 per cent according to various media polls this month (July).

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was also hammered in Tokyo assembly polls earlier this month at the hands of an upstart party.

Ms Inada had drawn heat in a stump speech for the election, when she implied that the military supports the LDP candidate in an appeal for support. 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 for a close friend for the approval of Japan's first veterinary school in 52 years.

Mr Abe will be grilled by the opposition when the Diet convenes for a special hearing slated for next Monday (July 24).

In a bid to breathe new life into his political fortunes, Mr Abe is likely to make sweeping changes to his Cabinet in a reshuffle that might take place on August 3.

Political watchers have said that Ms Inada, who served as LDP policy chief for two years before being appointed as defence minister in August last year, is at risk of losing her job as questions swirl over her competence.

In the current saga, Ms Inada is said to have given the nod to top defence ministry officials to cover up the existence of activity logs maintained by ground troops in South Sudan at a meeting in February.

They were said to have decided that there was no need to go public with the data because the logs were "maintained by individuals and so need not be treated as official documents".

These logs began to draw attention late last year after the ministry rejected an information disclosure request for the logs from the media, which had noted the worsening situation in South Sudan in July last year.

Tokyo pulled out its peacekeeping troops from the South Sudan mission in May this year, denying it was because of deteriorating security conditions but because its work - mainly infrastructure building - was done.

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

"The claim was that these are personal logs and not official documents and so they don't have to go public," he said. "If the public was top of mind, that would not be the conclusion as the public has the right to know the facts."

He added his belief that the reluctance to reveal the contents, by itself, was an indication that there was something amiss.

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