National / Politics

Disclosure that GSDF hid discovery of Iraq logs reignites doubts over civilian control of Japan's armed forces

by Tomohiro Osaki and Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writers

In a revelation that has reignited doubts over civilian control of the Self-Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry’s handling of data, the ministry has said that the existence of controversial activity logs from a mission in Iraq was kept hidden from top officials for more than a year.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a hastily convened news conference on Wednesday night that the logs in question were discovered by the research headquarters of the GSDF on March 27 last year, despite an earlier claim in the Diet by then-defense chief Tomomi Inada that they didn’t exist.

On Monday this week, just two days ago, Onodera had told reporters that GSDF officers discovered the documents in January this year and that he was notified on March 31. In fact the GSDF research unit had confirmed the existence of the records a year earlier.

The latest revelations raise questions about civilian control by Onodera and Inada over the GSDF. Civilian control of the SDF is considered particularly important because of dark memories of the country’s militarism before and during World War II.

“This is unforgivable,” Onodera told an Upper House committee on Thursday.

“The fact that the logs’ existence had gone unreported to higher ranks for more than a year is a serious problem,” the minister continued, adding that he has already ordered the establishment of an internal task force to further investigate the lapses. He also pledged to take severe measures against individuals responsible.

The apparent cover-up also deals a major blow to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with the news coming as the latest in a series of scandals involving alleged tampering with public documents and overall mismanagement of such records. The government is legally obliged to preserve and disclose such records upon request, under the information disclosure act and the public document management act.

Inada resigned from her post as defense chief in July last year because of another cover-up involving operation logs from a controversial mission by the GSDF to South Sudan.

In the fall, the education ministry was hit by a scandal involving leaked documents produced by ministry officials over allegations that Abe used the power of his office to help a close friend open a veterinary department in a special economic zone. In that scandal, which centered on school operator Kake Gakuen, the government had initially denied the records in question existed.

Last month, data from a survey on working conditions that officials had claimed were lost was discovered at the labor ministry. The Finance Ministry, too, was rocked the same month by a grave document-tampering scandal related to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

On Thursday opposition lawmakers ratcheted up their condemnations of the Defense Ministry, saying the yearlong delay was a clear testament to the ministry’s deteriorating civilian control of the SDF. Onodera rejected that accusation, saying it was precisely because of his leadership in demanding a thorough internal probe that the misstep was exposed.

Onodera denied that he should be held culpable, dismissing the accusation that his control of the SDF has been dysfunctional.

Upon being notified of the existence of the Iraq logs on Saturday, Onodera said he found an explanation given by a Joint Staff officer at the time “unconvincing” and wondered how the logs could have gone undetected by an internal investigation at the GSDF performed from February through March last year under the leadership of Inada.

“I then told my subordinates to find out why the logs couldn’t have been found sooner, and as a result I was notified yesterday” that their existence had in fact been confirmed as early as last March, Onodera said.

“If my civilian control had not been functioning, the truth never would have come out … I consider it of paramount importance for politicians to exert strong civilian control to eliminate every single seed of corruption in this case,” he said.

The opposition, however, remains unconvinced.

Democratic Party lawmaker Hiroyuki Konishi pointed out that Onodera told ministry executives in a regular meeting in mid-March that they should be extra careful about preventing a recurrence of the cover-up scandal that forced Inada to resign last year.

“You were preaching the value of proper data management exactly as your subordinates were keeping you in the dark about the logs’ existence. Don’t you think you were being made a fool of?” Konishi said, calling for Onodera’s resignation on the grounds that his civilian control was “not functioning at all.”

The latest disclosures raise similar concerns to a scandal last year, when the ministry came under fire for an institutional cover-up of GSDF activity logs for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The logs, compiled first-hand by GSDF service members, were considered a vital barometer to determine whether the situation in South Sudan amounted to “combat.”

Any suggestion that it had would have been politically explosive because it would have contravened Japan’s conditions for deploying troops overseas, which state that a cease-fire must be in place.

Regarding the deployment in Iraq, Japan sent roughly 5,500 GSDF members to the nation from January 2004 to July 2006 to provide water and medical aid, and to help repair infrastructure in the southern city of Samawah, according to Kyodo News.

It was the first time Japan sent the SDF, whose role is restricted by the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, to a country where an armed conflict was taking place.

Yukiko Miki, head of Access-Info Clearinghouse Japan, a nonprofit organization pushing for an improved information disclosure system, said Onodera’s assertion that civilian control was thoroughly maintained was questionable.

“It must be explained how the information came out, and why the minister didn’t hear about it. There needs to be a thorough explanation,” Miki said.