Opposition quick to brand new defense chief an amateur

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

New Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka drew flak from the opposition camp Monday for making statements over the weekend that seemed to indicate Tokyo was intent on beginning the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa by the end of the year.

On the same NHK news program Sunday, Tanaka also seemed to confuse the principle behind the Self-Defense Forces’ use of weapons abroad with Japan’s arms export ban, exposing his lack of knowledge on defense issues and causing him to be labeled an “amateur” by Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Tanaka later backpedaled from his “by the end of the year” comment at a Monday news conference. “It’s not about setting an exact time frame, goal or deadline,” he said.

One deadline Tanaka should keep in mind is Jan. 24, when the Diet will open its first session of the year. If Monday was any indication, the new defense chief can count on the LDP-led opposition to attack him in what has become a familiar replacement for debate in Japan.

“I am not sure if someone who can easily say that (the relocation) would begin by the end of the year is suitable for defense minister,” LDP Vice President Tadamori Oshima said Monday morning.

Tanaka was appointed Friday to replace Yasuo Ichikawa, a self-professed amateur on security issues who was criticized for verbal gaffes made both by himself and a subordinate.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, meanwhile, came out strongly in Tanaka’s defense, saying the defense minister mentioned the Futenma timeline as part of the “practical procedure” of the relocation.

“It is true that the minister did mention the end of the year but he also said the situation would not move forward without the understanding of the Okinawa people, and I don’t believe he made any statement suggesting the reclamation work would begin by the end of the year or that that was the government’s goal,” Fujimura said.

At the end of December, the Democratic Party of Japan-led government submitted an environmental impact report on the base plan to Okinawa Prefecture. The report was needed to build the replacement base, which will have runways extending offshore.

The government’s next step is to obtain a permit from Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to start landfill work for the project.

At his Monday morning inaugural ceremony at the Defense Ministry, Tanaka stressed his intention to persuade Okinawa’s citizens to allow the base relocation to proceed. “I would like to steadily implement (the plan) while accepting the critical voices in Okinawa with sincerity and taking steps to establish a trusting relationship,” Tanaka said.