Defense Minister Tomomi Inada fended off calls for her resignation Wednesday after she suggested a day earlier that the Self-Defense Forces backed a Liberal Democratic Party candidate in the upcoming Tokyo assembly election despite the SDF’s strict policy of political neutrality.
While campaigning for the candidate on Tuesday vying for a seat in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, Inada was recorded by the media as telling a crowd of local supporters: “On behalf of the Defense Ministry, the SDF and the LDP and as Defense Minister, I ask for your support.”
Inada’s words — and more specifically the reference to the SDF — immediately sparked the ire of opposition parties, which saw the comment as an attempt to use the SDF for political purposes. Article 61 of the Self-Defense Forces Law explicitly forbids personnel in the organization from engaging in political activity, with the exception of voting.
When contacted by The Japan Times, a Defense Ministry official, however, maintained the definition of “personnel” in the law does not include Defense Ministers, thereby asserting that Inada is exempt.
Renho, president of the main opposition Democratic Party, argued otherwise, noting the possibility that Inada’s comment was in a breach of the law. Additionally, she said the remark risked violating Article 15 of the Constitution, which stipulates public servants dedicate themselves to the whole of society, instead of one particular segment. The Public Offices Election law also bans public servants from taking advantage of their position while campaigning in an election.
To minimize the backlash, Inada quickly retracted what she admitted was a “misleading” comment Tuesday night, emphasizing she understands that the SDF remains politically neutral and that it is “impossible” for the SDF to endorse a particular candidate, according to reports. She has given no indications she intends to step down despite demands she do so.
Inada’s latest gaffe adds to a number of headaches currently plaguing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His LDP is fighting an uphill battle to maintain power in the Tokyo assembly as it heads into Sunday’s metropolitan election amid soaring public discontent over favoritism allegations leveled at the prime minister himself.
It could also affect Abe’s decision-making as he seeks to reshuffle the Cabinet in the coming months.
Inada’s faux pas is so grave that Abe should remove her from his Cabinet, Renho told reporters Wednesday morning.
“I really sympathize with the SDF personnel,” said Renho, who only goes by one name. “That their top leader publicly indicated they are a group of cheerleaders for a particular political party — the LDP — could have a negative impact on their morale, which I think will go a long way toward harming their ability to keep the public safe.”
“We demand the Diet session be reopened swiftly and that Prime Minister Abe take responsibility for assigning her to the portfolio in the first place,” the opposition leader added.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he had personally rebuked Inada for the “misleading” remark, but rejected calls for her resignation.
“I expect her to fulfill her responsibility, to explain herself and to continue to sincerely tackle her duties,” he said.
Still, dismayed voices also sprang up within the ruling LDP.
“She should retract the remark if it’s misleading, but it’s probably the SDF personnel themselves who were perplexed the most,” LDP lawmaker Masahisa Sato, who served as a member of the Ground Self-Defense Force, tweeted Wednesday.
This is not the first time a powerful public servant stands accused of using their position to influence the outcome of an election.
In 2012, the Upper House passed a censure motion against then land minister Takeshi Maeda over allegations he illegally became involved in an mayoral election in the city of Gero, Gifu Prefecture, by signing a document that drummed up support for a particular candidate. His act was seen as tantamount to using his public position to sway the result of the election.
Also in 2012, Ro Manabe, then head of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau, came under fire for giving “briefings” that urged ministry officials and their family members living in the city of Ginowan, Okinawa, to vote in a mayoral election. He was accused of indirectly suggesting they support a candidate backing the government’s contentious plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
He was officially admonished for his actions.