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Japan's defence chief a returning steady hand

Japan's new Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera reviewing a guard of honour during a ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on Friday. He has, since his first term as defence chief from December 2012 to September 2014, already been a vocal champion
Japan's new Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera reviewing a guard of honour during a ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on Friday. He has, since his first term as defence chief from December 2012 to September 2014, already been a vocal champion for the adoption of offensive weapons in the name of defence.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled a new Cabinet last week in a bid to win back trust after a string of political scandals. Japan Correspondent Walter Sim profiles the two men tasked with the key portfolios of defence and foreign affairs.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera has had a lifelong relationship with the sea, growing up in a coastal city in eastern Japan and graduating with a degree in marine environmental science.

But this fondness turned to heartbreak for him and many others on March 11, 2011, when his childhood home was destroyed by the massive tsunami triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake.

He rallied, as the sole elected lawmaker of the then-opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to be representing the ravaged areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, to give voice to the victims while working across party stripes.

"That was not a time to be political, and if there are national crises that must be managed, politics has to move in unison," he said in an interview this March to mark the sixth anniversary of the disaster.

This mantra will extend to the threat of North Korea that looms large over Japan, with the rogue state last month test-firing two intercontinental ballistic missiles that fell into waters in the Japanese exclusive economic zone.

The 57-year-old was reappointed defence chief last Thursday but had, since his first term from December 2012 to September 2014, already been a vocal champion for the adoption of offensive weapons in the name of defence.

 

His first term coincided with an increasingly volatile regional security environment.

Pyongyang was at the time accelerating its ballistic missile programme, while Beijing had raised tensions through such actions as a military frigate locking its weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese navy ship in the East China Sea, where the two nations are in dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets.

"In the case where Japan is being repeatedly attacked, we naturally have to consider attacking the enemy's strategic bases. But we are not thinking of a pre-emptive strike capability," he had said in 2013, in reference to North Korea.

Mr Onodera made the same point again at a news conference this April as chief of an LDP panel looking into how Japan could shore up its defences, which Tokyo acknowledges to be woefully inadequate. Experts believe that his reappointment at the Defence Ministry will give new impetus for Japan to acquire offensive weapons in the name of defence.

Like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and predecessor Tomomi Inada, the six-term lawmaker - who is married with two sons - is openly affiliated with the influential right-wing Nippon Kaigi lobby group.

Mr Onodera is for the amendment of Japan's Pacifist Constitution, and had previously expressed discomfort with the idea of Japan allowing a reigning female monarch in what is believed to be the world's longest hereditary imperial bloodline.

But he has stressed a future-oriented relationship with Japan's neighbours. In 2013, after then-Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto made strident remarks justifying "comfort women", Mr Onodera was quick with a mea culpa that Japan had caused "tremendous suffering and damage" during World War II.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'Japan's defence chief a returning steady hand'. Print Edition | Subscribe