The Cabinet on Friday approved historic proposals to give military officers more say in planning Self-Defense Forces operations, placing senior officers on an equal footing with civil servants beneath the defense minister.

Pending Diet approval, the changes would also abolish the ministry’s operation and planning bureau, transferring its operational duties to the SDF Joint Staff, which thereafter would be in charge of planning military operations and seeking approval from the defense minister.

Critics say the change threatens to ease the civilian defense staff’s tight control over the Self-Defense Forces, although Defense Minister Gen Nakatani has repeatedly denied this.

Ministry bureaucrats currently wield greater power than senior SDF officers in assisting the defense minister. It’s a legacy from Japan’s wars in the 1930s and 1940s, when young Imperial Japanese Army officers repeatedly disobeyed the central government and thereby helped drag the nation into war with China and, eventually, the Pacific War.

The 1931 Manchurian Incident (also known as the Mukden Incident) is a typical example of the army’s disregard for civilian authorities. It is also one of the worst: Without Tokyo’s approval, troops in northeastern China bombed a Japanese-operated railway in the area and blamed the attack on Chinese forces.

This led to the immediate invasion of China and the establishment of Manchukuo, a puppet state controlled by the Imperial Japanese Army.

However, SDF officers have a clear case against their civilian counterparts, who have far less knowledge and field experience in planning military operations. The supremacy of civilian bureaucrats has long been a source of frustration to SDF officers.

Nakatani, formerly a senior SDF ranger, has argued the plan will allow the SDF to respond more speedily to contingencies, and that bureaucrats should work in tandem with top SDF officers in assisting the minister.

“Civilian control means politics controls the military . . . and the politics means politicians elected by the people,” Nakatani told reporters Friday morning. “It does not means bureaucrats should control the SDF officers.”

However, senior politicians such as former prime ministers Eisaku Sato and Noboru Takeshita have in the past defended the need for bureaucrats to be able to pull rank on SDF officers as a key factor for keeping the military under strict civilian control.

“We should never forget the bitter experiences of the prewar era,” Sato told the Lower House on April 7, 1970.

“Now civilian control over the SDF is composed of four elements: control by the Diet, control by the Cabinet, control by civilian bureaucrats within the (then) Defense Agency and control by the National Defense Council,” Sato said.

Civilian control “has been established as a system, and there are no concerns about it,” Sato said.

Nakatani rejects this thesis and has apparently retracted the essence of Sato’s view.

During a news conference on Feb. 27, Nakatani was repeatedly asked whether he considers the power bureaucrats hold over SDF officers a result of the lessons Japan learned from going to war in the 1930s and 40s. Nakatani disagreed each time.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “In the first place, the SDF was set up as an organization different from the old military. It’s a new organization to defend the country,” he said.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan is preparing to open fire on the government for allegedly revising — or ignoring — its past position on civilian control.

“If you want to change (government views) which are based on historic (discussion), you should do that only after conducting sufficient reviews” of past discussions, said Goshi Hosono, DPJ policy chief during a news conference on Tuesday.

Also on Friday, the Cabinet approved the Defense Ministry’s plan to spin off this year all SDF and ministry departments that handle weapons and equipment into a separate agency comprising a staff of 1,400 civil servants and 400 SDF officers.

The planned agency, tentatively called the Defense Equipment Agency, would centralize planning, development, procurement and maintenance of weaponry and equipment throughout its life cycle, the ministry said.

The ministry thereby aims to reduce the total cost of high-tech weapons, some of which are now being developed as part of multinational projects. It is seen in part as an expense-saving measure, as the debt-ridden government grapples with budget restrictions. The ministry also is considering unifying some weapons and other systems among the Air, Marine and Ground self-defense forces, something that will be made possible by establishing the agency, throughout the establishment of the agency ministry officials said.

The ministry plans to submit relevant bills on the matter to the Diet before it closes in mid-June.

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