Japan's defence minister quits over S. Sudan cover-up claims

Defence Minister Tomomi Inada quit yesterday to take responsibility for a cover-up of daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan.
Defence Minister Tomomi Inada quit yesterday to take responsibility for a cover-up of daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Defence Minister Tomomi Inada quit yesterday to take responsibility for a cover-up of daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan.
Shunsuke Mutai
Defence Minister Tomomi Inada quit yesterday to take responsibility for a cover-up of daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan.
Toshinao Nakagawa
Defence Minister Tomomi Inada quit yesterday to take responsibility for a cover-up of daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan.
Masahiro Imamura

Her resignation comes as PM Abe sees plunge in approval ratings

Defence Minister Tomomi Inada resigned yesterday to take responsibility for a cover-up of daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologised to the people.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will also be responsible for the Defence Ministry ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle next week, with speculation rife that North Korea could be on the verge of test-firing another intercontinental ballistic missile.

"No vacuum must be created in national security," said Mr Abe, whose Cabinet yesterday approved more sanctions against the rogue state. The Defence Ministry is expected to release its annual White Paper as early as next week with stronger language against Pyongyang.

Ms Inada, 58, quit despite the fact that an internal ministry probe could not conclusively say if she had played any role in approving the eventual decision to hide the mission logs.

She told a news conference, however, that the buck stopped with her as defence chief and volunteered to return one month of her salary. "I'm keenly aware that my responsibility as Defence Minister is to lead my ministry and the (military) Self-Defence Force (SDF)," she said.

"But ever since the controversy, there have been reports being leaked one after another that have caused serious damage to the trust of the public towards the SDF and lowered the morale of our troops."

  • About the scandal

  • TOKYO • In December last year, the Defence Ministry turned down an information disclosure request by the media for the daily mission logs recorded by ground troops in South Sudan from July.

    The apparent reason was that both hard and soft copies of the logs had been discarded, though this was eventually found to be untrue.

    The media had noted the worsening situation in South Sudan and it would have been politically controversial had the Japanese troops, who were involved in infrastructure projects, been in immediate danger.

    After it was leaked to the media that electronic logs still existed, the Defence Ministry first claimed they need not be released as these were recorded by individual soldiers and hence, not official.

    It later backtracked and released a portion of the electronic logs in the face of public pressure.

    An internal probe uncovered a series of legal violations that involved both Defence Ministry and military officers, with disciplinary action recommended for five officials.

    Among them were the ministry's top bureaucrat Tetsuro Kuroe, who resigned yesterday, and General Toshiya Okabe of the Ground Self- Defence Force, who will leave his post on Aug 8.

    Walter Sim

  • 4 resignations in four months

  • SHUNSUKE MUTAI, 61

    Former parliamentary vice- minister for reconstruction

    Resigned: March 9, 2017 Mr Mutai, who was criticised last year for getting a piggyback ride across a puddle in a typhoon-hit town, landed in hot water in March when he said the "boot industry really made some money" as it led the government to buy more rain boots for its officials.

    TOSHINAO NAKAGAWA, 47

    Former parliamentary vice-minister for economy, trade and industry

    Resigned: April 18 Mr Nakagawa resigned after weekly tabloid Shukan Shincho accused him of being in an extramarital affair. The article also said that the police had registered him as a stalker.

    MASAHIRO IMAMURA, 70

    Former reconstruction minister

    Resigned: April 26 Mr Imamura was lambasted for saying it was "good" that the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, which killed 18,500 people, struck Tohoku instead of Tokyo.

Mr Abe, who once saw Ms Inada as his protege and earmarked her as a potential successor, said he regretfully accepted the resignation and apologised for the scandal. Ms Inada is the fourth minister to quit in the current Cabinet, which was put together only in August last year.

Another shake-up is due next week as Mr Abe - himself under fire over two favouritism scandals - tries to steady the ship amid sinking approval ratings that have plunged below 30 per cent in some opinion polls.

"As Prime Minister, I am responsible for appointing my ministers and I must take to heart all the serious criticism from the public. I would like to apologise from the bottom of my heart."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also apologised to the public, and vowed that the government will "take all measures to prevent such a situation from reoccurring and will work hard to win back the public's trust".

When asked by reporters if he felt Ms Inada's resignation was belated, Mr Suga said that Ms Inada has "fully cooperated with the internal probe and decided to resign as minister based on the findings".

Japanese Ground SDF troops were deployed in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, between 2012 and May this year, as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission. But violence erupted there in July last year, killing at least 300 soldiers and displacing at least 36,000 civilians.

A media request for activity logs for that month was denied by the Defence Ministry on the basis that they had been discarded. News later leaked that electronic copies of the logs, in fact, still existed.

The heavy fighting was a cause of concern for pacifist Japan, whose people have little appetite for aggression. The disclosure could have impeded Mr Abe's push for the SDF to take on expanded security roles abroad, within the boundaries of the war-renouncing Constitution.

The Nikkei Asian Review said Ms Inada's resignation might be too little, too late to quell a surge in discontent within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as some lawmakers believe that Mr Abe "exacerbated the problem by standing by (Ms Inada) until the very end".

Before being appointed defence chief in August last year, Ms Inada was the LDP's policy chief for two years. But her competence came into doubt after she was seen as unable to hold her own under relentless questioning in the Diet, and she had drawn flak for a series of gaffes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2017, with the headline 'Japan's defence minister quits over S. Sudan cover-up claims'. Print Edition | Subscribe