Defense Minister Tomomi Inada decided Thursday to resign following allegations of a cover-up of logs detailing the activities of Japanese troops serving as U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan, government sources said.
Her decision was intended to take responsibility for the confusion surrounding the allegation, according to media reports.
This is the fourth minister to step down in the current Cabinet, following reconstruction minister Masahiro Imamura’s resignation in April.
Earlier in the day, a government source said the Ground Self-Defense Force’s chief of staff, Gen. Toshiya Okabe, will resign following the allegations.
The resignations as well as that of Tetsuro Kuroe, the ministry’s top bureaucrat, are expected to deliver a fresh blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, already struggling due to plunging approval ratings.
According to the sources, Kuroe is likely to be replaced by Katashi Toyota, director general of the ministry’s secretariat.
Okabe declined to comment Thursday morning on whether he intends to step down.
Other government sources said he was among top officials who had decided not to reveal the existence of the logs, which the Defense Ministry once claimed had been discarded.
Amid increasing criticism against the ministry, Abe had already been considering replacing the beleaguered defense minister in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle early next month
Opposition parties are likely to view Inada’s move as a belated gesture reacting only after they questioned her competence for some time.
When she was tapped as defense minister in the previous Cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 3 last year — the second woman to serve in the post — some saw the promise in the 58-year-old lawyer-turned-politician as potentially Japan’s first female prime minister. But her one-year stint had been marred by gaffes and missteps.
Inada faced tough questions about her competence, including allegations she tried to hide an inconvenient development in the handling of the controversial data that documented GSDF activities in the U.N. mission. She has strongly denied the accusation.
The former defense ministers thought to be possible picks to replace Inada are Itsunori Onodera, Yoshimasa Hayashi, Yasukazu Hamada and Gen Nakatani, all lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Other sources suggest LDP policy chief Toshimitsu Motegi could be a suitable choice. He has not held the defense portfolio before but has experience as trade minister and in positions of responsibility within the party.
There are also suggestions Abe should give several other ministerial posts to lawmakers with previous Cabinet experience to reduce the likelihood of further scandals or verbal gaffes.
Approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet have plummeted in recent weeks amid claims the prime minister influenced a government decision to benefit a close friend.
Inada’s perceived incompetence has engendered distrust and criticism from both ruling and opposition parties.
The logs recording the activities of the Japanese troops described particularly tense situations in the fledgling African country, and their disclosure last year could have adversely affected the government’s push to continue the troop deployment and assign it a new — and possibly riskier — security role during the U.N. mission.
The ministry has conducted an internal probe into the scandal and is preparing to announce the outcome Friday.
The issue dates back to December, when the ministry said it could not fulfill a disclosure request for logs covering the GSDF’s activities in July last year — when the security situation in South Sudan was sharply deteriorating — because the logs had been discarded.
In early February the ministry said the information had been found on a computer at the Self-Defense Forces Joint Staff Office and disclosed part of it.
But top SDF officials reportedly knew that the GSDF had the data all along.
Japan withdrew its GSDF troops from the U.N. mission at the end of May, saying the decision had been made not because of deteriorating security conditions but because the GSDF participation over the past five years had produced significant results.
Inada also came under fire from both ruling and opposition party members for making political use of the SDF to attract support for a candidate in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2.
She apologized for her remarks, but the furor over the issue is believed to have contributed to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s humiliating defeat in the Tokyo election.
Inada is known for her nationalistic views and regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo seen overseas by some as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
As defense chief, she visited the war-linked shrine once late last year, prompting criticism from China and South Korea, both of which suffered under Japan’s wartime aggression.
U.S. officials also reacted negatively to the visit that took place immediately after she accompanied Abe to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where the Japanese leader and then U.S. President Barack Obama sought to show the power of reconciliation that has turned former adversaries into close allies.