Japan's defence chief apologises again over discovery of logs of troops' activities in Iraq

Japan's defence minister Itsunori Onodera says he intends to find out why the daily activity logs of the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force members during a mission in Iraq could not be found during a search of the Ground Staff Office last year.
Japan's defence minister Itsunori Onodera says he intends to find out why the daily activity logs of the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force members during a mission in Iraq could not be found during a search of the Ground Staff Office last year.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan's defence minister Itsunori Onodera on Tuesday (April 3) apologises for a second time in consecutive days over the discovery of the troops' activity logs in Iraq whose existence had earlier been denied repeatedly by his ministry.

Onodera told reporters on Tuesday that he intends to find out why the daily activity logs of the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force (GSDF) members during a mission in Iraq could not be found during a search of the Ground Staff Office last year, reported national broadcaster NHK.

The ministry announced on Monday that 14,000 pages of records covering 376 days from 2004 to 2006 were found in the office.

Japan sent roughly 5,500 GSDF personnel to Iraq from January 2004 to July 2006 to provide water and medical aid, and help repair infrastructure in Samawah in southern Iraq.

Onodera said that when he briefed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.

The records were discovered as the ministry was conducting an internal probe into another set of records of Japanese peacekeeping troops in South Sudan which sparked a controversy that led to the resignation of Onodera's predecessor Tomomi Inada last July.

Japanese media said that the cover-up scandal has exposed the culture of hiding inconvenient information.

The development comes as a document tampering scandal threatens Abe's reign in office, and a day after new law on government document management went into effect.

Onodera told reporters on Tuesday that he intends to find out why the daily activity logs of the GSDF during a mission in Iraq could not be found during a search of the Ground Staff Office last year.

Until Monday, the defence ministry had maintained that the records no longer existed.

The ministry had said on Feb 16 last year that the logs on Iraq do not exist. Four days later Inada said in a Diet committee that the ministry was unable to find logs in Iraq, in response to questions by lawmakers.

Speaking to reporters on Monday and referring to that incident, Onodera said: "I feel sorry we could not appropriately respond to questions in the Diet."

Local media said Onodera was notified on Saturday (March 31), more than two months after the records were first found in January.

Onodera explained that this was because the discovery was being confirmed with all units across the country and that it took time to analyse the large volumes of information.

The cover-up scandal started when the defence ministry turned down freedom of information requests made in July and October 2016 for access to the activity logs, with the GSDF claiming they no longer existed.

Evidence suggests someone later ordered the logs to be destroyed, reported Nikkei Asian Review.

The records, which eventually were released, indicate major fighting occurred in South Sudan's capital of Juba while the SDF was in the country.

Because Japanese troops are allowed to engage in peacekeeping operations only when a ceasefire is in place, the ministry likely was concerned that this information would upend the basic premise of the SDF mission in the country, reported Nikkei Asian Review.