The Ground Self-Defense Force is suspected of systematically covering up a criminal case involving a colonel in 1994, the Defense Agency said Thursday.
The case involves Col. Yasunobu Hideshima, 53, who was arrested Monday on suspicion of allowing three civilian friends to fire live rounds during a November 1994 drill in Shizuoka Prefecture. Hideshima’s rank is the fifth-highest of the 18 GSDF ranks.
Military police arrested Hideshima and the three civilians only after the media reported the case in January.
GSDF leaders, including the then chief of staff, had learned of the case shortly after the incident but decided not to arrest Hideshima, an agency source said.
Instead, they closed the case in January 1995 by merely issuing Hideshima with a reprimand, one of the most lenient punishments and one usually not publicized, the source said.
The Defense Agency said it has begun questioning officials who were supervising Hideshima at the time of the incident.
Defense Agency officials, who are internally investigating the alleged coverup, found a GSDF document from the time of the incident suggesting the leaders decided to punish Hideshima lightly for fear of losing the trust of the public, the source said.
Hideshima is suspected of inviting three of his friends to the shooting drill at the Higashifuji Range, and they took along their hunting rifles.
The colonel, who led the GSDF 1st Airborne Brigade at the time, fired their rifles without police approval and let his friends fire SDF handguns, in violation of the SDF Law and the Firearm and Sword Control Law, it is alleged.
The SDF Law requires military personnel to obtain police approval before firing guns that do not belong to the SDF, while the firearms control law prohibits civilians from firing SDF guns.
GSDF police sent the four to prosecutors Wednesday.
The alleged coverup has parallels with one involving Kanagawa Prefectural Police, whose leaders concealed an officer’s illegal use of drugs in 1996 for fear of damaging police dignity. The officer was dismissed ostensibly for having an extramarital affair.
The prefectural force arrested the officer in November only after the media disclosed the coverup. Top officials of the force were also later arrested.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki on Thursday called the GSDF scandal regrettable, as it follows on the heels of the Kanagawa and Niigata prefectural police scandals.
“It seems like they are trying to protect their organization even by violating the law,” Aoki told a news conference.
“We are now investigating the details (of the GSDF case), but it is out of the question to try to hide wrongdoing,” he said.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said the case must be be dealt with strictly after the Defense Agency completes its investigation.
“An investigation led by the Defense Agency director general is under way at the moment,” Obuchi told reporters at his official residence. “We need to deal with this case in a strict manner based on the facts that are revealed in the investigation.”