National

New MSDF 'family cards' hint at expanded Japan military role abroad: journalist

by Masami Ito and Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writers

As lawmakers continue their heated debate over the controversial security bills in the Upper House, the Defense Ministry is quietly but steadily preparing for what comes after the legislation’s enactment — including determining who is eligible to fight in a war, according to journalist Yu Terasawa.

Since April, the ministry has been distributing “family cards” to personnel in the Maritime Self-Defense Force to fill in detailed personal information, ranging from their families’ email addresses and cellphone numbers to their own health conditions.

The ministry insists these cards are simply to organize data on its personnel, but that is not how some insiders see things, Terasawa says.

“The members were told that the cards were ‘for if something should happen.’ According to my source in the ministry, officials were all complaining that it was clear the cards are for in case they were killed in war,” Terasawa said.

He first learned about the family cards in May after meeting his source — a veteran Self-Defense Forces official — to discuss Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to reinterpret the war-renouncing Constitution to allow Japan to engage in the right to collective self-defense.

The official, who spoke to Terasawa on the condition of anonymity, claimed that he was told to fill out the card, which required a wide range of personal information, but was not given any solid explanation of why it was necessary.

It took the journalist a while to get a copy of the family card as the contentious secrecy law, enacted in December, hung over him and his source like a dark cloud. Civil servants who leak secrets can face as long as 10 years in prison for leaking sensitive information, while those who instigate leaks, including journalists, can be imprisoned for up to five years.

The existence of the cards first came to light in early June during a hearing at the Tokyo District Court in which 43 journalists, including Terasawa, were suing the government over the secrecy law’s constitutionality.

Terasawa testified that the problem was not about whether the family cards were designated as a secret or not, but rather that the law restricted his activities as a journalist because both he and his source were constantly in fear of violating the law. A ruling on the suit is expected in November.

“The public can’t do the reporting themselves so they rely on journalists to guarantee their right to know,” Terasawa said. “But if media activities are limited, that infringes on the people’s right to know.”

It was only after the court hearing that the SDF source gave Terasawa a copy of the card with a promise that he would only use it in his own article, which was published later in June as an e-book.

The card Terasawa obtained from the SDF officer requires information on service members’ “first family,” which refers to the people you live with, such as your spouse and children, and “second family,” which refers to one’s parents. Grandparents fall under the “third family” category. Date of birth, occupation of each person as well as a description of their current health — “very healthy,” “healthy” or “unhealthy” — is required.

“This goes way beyond just basic information and it violates the privacy of SDF personnel,” Terasawa said. “It is obvious the ministry is checking to see who is OK to send off to war and who isn’t.”

Hirofumi Takeda, Defense Ministry press secretary, flatly denied the family cards have anything to do with the security bills.

“It is essential to have the understanding and support of family members in order for the SDF personnel to rest assured and focus on their jobs,” Takeda said. “The family cards are a part of the ministry’s family support policy.”

He said the cards were specifically for MSDF personnel because similar data for Ground and Air Self-Defense personnel have already been collected.

Takeda explained that while the information on the second and third family members was optional, it is important because it can be used to contact family members if something happens to the SDF personnel, or to confirm the safety of family members in cases such as disasters.

The cards “are part of the same family support system that we were already been engaged in, and are not based on the current security legislation,” Takeda said.

The sample card that Terasawa obtained has an example entry, however, showing that required information included the names and telephone numbers of schools and day care centers that SDF members’ children attend, and any mental disorders the members’ siblings may have.

Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former Defense Ministry official, said the new cards reflect a shift in the SDF’s duties, explaining that they are likely to be used to determine whether each member is suitable to participate in what will become more dangerous overseas missions.

He said that while similar cards have been used in the past to decide who to send abroad, the information required on the new cards is far more extensive and invasive.

“The security bills will completely change the SDF’s missions abroad. SDF personnel are going to be placed in situations where they are going to have to use their weapons,” Yanagisawa said. “SDF members need to be prepared (that they may) be killed in action — that is what the security legislation means.”

Yanagisawa, who also served as assistant chief Cabinet secretary in charge of crisis management from 2004 to 2009, criticized Abe and his government, slamming its reinterpretation of the Constitution.

“Self-defense is protecting your own country and collective self-defense is protecting other countries,” he said. “There is no room (for reinterpretation) nor overlap between the two.”

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