National / Politics

Inada's leadership hopes evaporate after meteoric rise to defense chief

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe picked confidante Tomomi Inada to be defense minister last August, she was widely seen as having the potential to someday become the first woman to hold the nation’s highest office.

But the once-promising future of the 58-year-old former lawyer has become increasingly uncertain after a year dominated by missteps that many attribute to incompetence and character flaws. These culminated in her resignation over an alleged cover-up scandal on Friday.

“I won’t say Inada is finished as a politician, but I don’t have the impression she has the potential to become a leader who can manipulate situations to her advantage … or appeal to the hearts of the voters and win them over,” said Junichi Takase, a professor of political science at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.

Calls for Inada’s resignation had been picking up steam, especially after a campaign gaffe in late June in which she did not seem to grasp the political impartiality of the Self-Defense Forces. Her woes grew further after media reports exposed her role in the alleged cover-up of the daily activity logs of the GSDF unit that was deployed for a U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

After being elected to the Diet in 2005, Inada quickly ascended the ranks of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the government with the backing of Abe, who had encouraged her to enter politics in the first place. The two lawmakers share deeply conservative views. Both visit war-linked Yasukuni Shrine regularly before taking on more prominent roles.

She won her first Cabinet post in 2012, becoming administrative reform minister when Abe returned as prime minister, and then became the LDP’s policy chief between 2014 and 2016 before advancing to defense minister.

The weighty defense post, which oversees some 230,000 SDF members and presides over the sprawling defense apparatus, ultimately may have proven too challenging for someone with little related experience.

Abe may have believed that Inada would somehow manage, expecting her term to avoid the hurdles faced by her predecessor because his administration had already rammed through divisive security legislation that brought about landmark changes in SDF operations, according to Takase.

At the beginning of her stint, Inada appeared eager to play it safe, backing off from her past eyebrow-raising remarks that Japan should consider possessing nuclear weapons. She also ducked questions about whether she would continue her regular visits to Yasukuni, which is viewed by Japan’s neighbors as a symbol of its past militarism.

But from time to time, she appeared unable to restrain herself, and occasionally made remarks or engaged in conduct that drew criticism or raised suspicions about her competency.

Inada looked emotionally overwhelmed and on the verge of tears on the Diet floor last September, when she was grilled by an opposition lawmaker for failing to attend a government ceremony to mourn the Japanese who died in World War II — and for giving up her routine visit to Yasukuni on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the war’s end.

Inada had been sent overseas at the time, a move believed to have been a political decision forced on her to avoid generating friction with China and South Korea, which are critical of Inada’s revisionist views of history.

But her reaction during Diet debate raised doubts about whether she was qualified to lead the SDF during a rapidly changing security situation. Some defense officials even said they felt she “lacked common sense” in her choice of fashion, pointing to the time she inspected a submarine in high heels.

Some political experts say one of Inada’s most serious blunders during her short tenure was a remark she made that was viewed as an attempt to make political use of the SDF to rally support for an LDP candidate in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

During a stump speech in Tokyo, Inada asked voters to back the candidate, saying the request came from “the Defense Ministry, the SDF, the defense minister and the LDP.” She quickly retracted the comment, but the opposition parties denounced her for violating the SDF’s legally enshrined political neutrality.

“Drawing a clear line between the job as a politician and the job as a government official is the most basic thing a politician does when assuming any ministerial post … in that sense, I feel Inada was not yet even a proper politician,” said retired Vice Admiral Toshiyuki Ito.

The GSDF cover-up scandal, which ultimately prompted Inada to resign, exposed internal strife between SDF officers and civilian officials in a way that signaled her inability to manage a crisis, said Ito, an expert on leadership theories and a professor at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology Toranomon Graduate School.

Observing the issue from the standpoint of women’s political participation, Yuko Hamaga, a lecturer at Senshu University, said Inada may have landed a job that seemed out of her league because women make up a disproportionately small percentage of seats in the Diet.

“The overall number is totally insufficient. So, if the government tries to appoint women (to a ministerial post), the choice is often limited to those who have not won elections many times and they get promoted over seasoned male politicians,” Hamaga said.

If Inada’s case helps create the impression that women are not capable of being politicians, that will be “very disappointing” for other women, she added.

Although she announced she would resign to take responsibility for the alleged cover-up, Inada insisted she had done her job properly while acknowleding that there were “various things” from the past year that she must reflect on.

“I have no regrets, in that I have seriously done what I was supposed to do. But now that I’ve faced this outcome, I will start again from scratch and devote all my efforts to promoting the policies of the Abe government as one Diet member,” she said.