MSDF must clean up its act

The Tokyo High Court’s ruling last week for the plaintiff in a damages suit over the suicide of a Maritime Self-Defense Force member highlights the deplorable attempt by the MSDF to cover up evidence that the victim was bullied by a senior MSDF member.

Had it not been for the action of a whistle-blower who pointed out the existence of the crucial evidence, background details of the suicide would have been kept hidden. The Defense Ministry needs to take the ruling seriously and implement measures to ensure that the MSDF’s tendency as an organization to hide inconvenient facts — as has been pointed out in a separate probe by the Cabinet Office — is eliminated.

The MSDF should also reconsider its reported plan to punish the whistle-blower, who photocopied the files containing the evidence and sent it to the lawyer of the family of the MSDF member who killed himself. The punishment, to be imposed on the grounds that the whistleblower broke internal rules of the force, would run counter to the spirit of the 2004 law to protect whistle-blowers from being subjected to dismissal, pay cuts or other unfair treatment.

The lawsuit was filed by the bereaved family of a 21-year-old seaman — a crew member of the 3,850-ton destroyer Tachikaze — who killed himself by jumping in front of a train in Tokyo in October 2004.

A suicide note left by the seaman accused his superior crew member on the destroyer, a petty officer 2nd class, of bullying him. The family sued the petty officer and the state in 2006, seeking ¥130 million in damages.

Immediately after the seaman killed himself, the MSDF sent questionnaires to all 190 crew members of the Tachikaze, asking whether they had observed or been aware of acts of extortion and violence among them. During the district court proceedings, the MSDF insisted that it had already destroyed the results of the questionnaires.

In January 2011, the Yokohama District Court awarded ¥4.4 million in compensation to the family. While acknowledging that violence and extortion on the part of the petty officer led to the seaman’s suicide, the court determined that it was impossible for either the officer or other superiors of the victim to foresee the possibility of his suicide. The family appealed the ruling, seeking ¥150 million in compensation.

Meanwhile, a lieutenant commander who served as the state’s representative in the district court proceedings came across the files containing results of the questionnaires. In 2008, he notified a Defense Ministry section dealing with reports from whistle-blowers of his findings, and requested that the files be disclosed. The MSDF instead hushed up the existence of the files and continued to deny their existence in court.

In February 2011, the lieutenant commander sent a letter to the family’s lawyer, telling of the existence of the files. Then, in an April 2012 statement submitted to the Tokyo High Court handling the family’s appeal, the lieutenant commander affirmed that the MSDF was holding the files. His subsequent testimony to the court changed the direction of the trial.

The MSDF reluctantly admitted to the existence of the files. It submitted some 200 pieces of evidence, including the files in question, to the high court in December 2012.

Responses to the questionnaire shed light on details of how the seaman had been bullied. The petty officer is said to have repeatedly hit the victim on the head, shot him with an air gun, and extorted ¥90,000 from him. According to the files, the seaman hinted to one of his colleagues that he intended to kill himself, just weeks before his suicide.

The night before he died, the seaman told the colleague that he would either poison himself with carbon monoxide by burning charcoal or jump in front of a train.

In the April 22 high court ruling, presiding Judge Kenta Suzuki condemned the MSDF for hiding key evidence concerning the seaman’s suicide, including evidence suggesting that the petty officer and other superiors were able to foresee the victim’s suicide. It would have been possible to prevent the suicide, the judge said, if the superiors had taken appropriate measures. On that basis, the court ordered the government and the petty officer to pay ¥73 million to the seaman’s family. It also awarded an additional ¥200,000 in solatium to the family for the MSDF’s illegal act of hiding key evidence.

The MSDF and the Defense Ministry should reflect on the judge’s ruling and take concrete steps to rectify the behaviors of members of the MSDF and other branches of the SDF.

The MSDF’s own investigation has found that an officer of the MSDF Staff Office in charge of handling lawsuits gave the order to destroy the files containing the results of the questionnaire. In October 2013, the Cabinet Office’s council on information disclosure and personal information protection reported that the MSDF as an organization has a tendency to conceal information that it views as inconvenient.

In his 2012 testimony to the high court, the lieutenant commander said he did what he did because of his belief that the SDF should not lie to people. Instead of punishing the officer, the MSDF and the Defense Ministry need to reform their organization in ways that protect members who stand up to shed light on wrongdoings among SDF members.

The state secrets law enacted by the Abe administration last year imposes heavy punishments on government officials who leak classified state information. There is concern that the law discourages officials from blowing the whistle on wrongdoing even when they see it taking place in their organizations. The law also lacks a credible third-party mechanism to prevent government bodies from designating inconvenient information as secrets at their own discretion.

The MSDF case serves as reminder of the need at least to install such a mechanism before the law is implemented.

  • Starviking

    No, this is the problem with Japan: organisations cover-up wrongdoings to avoid shame. It happens at every organisational level, from the smallest school to the top of the government. It is not the MSDF which must clean-up it’s act – it’s Japan which must.