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Lawmaker Hiroyuki Konishi’s encounter with an irate SDF officer stirs debate on military

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

On April 16, opposition lawmaker Hiroyuki Konishi was walking by the Upper House members’ office building in Tokyo when he encountered a man jogging. The man recognized Konishi and started talking to him. His manner soon turned belligerent. An officer in the Self-Defense Forces, he objected to what he felt was the politician’s negative opinion of the SDF, saying that Konishi’s work as a lawmaker was “disgusting” and that he was an “enemy of the people.” The tirade reportedly went on for as long as 30 minutes.

As a result of Konshi’s allegations, several media outlets said the officer’s use of this phrase was reminiscent of the strident nationalism that informed the May 15 Incident of 1932, when naval officers were involved in an attempted a coup d’etat and killed the prime minister — a key development in the rise of Japanese militarism prior to World War II.

The main difference now, these media point out, is that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, which they are careful not to label as being a “military,” are under civilian control in accordance with the Constitution. Konishi is an elected representative, but as media critic Chiki Ogiue pointed out on his radio show, the officer’s outburst would seem to imply that it was he who presumed to be speaking for the Japanese people, thus rendering civilian control meaningless.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera was quick to apologize in the Diet for the officer’s behavior, and while the officer himself reportedly initially denied that he had called Konishi an “enemy of the people,” he eventually apologized as well. The matter should have ended there, but given the current mood in the government with regard to the SDF because of the controversy over the SDF’s Iraq and South Sudan missions, as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stated goal of legitimizing the SDF by including it in proposed revisions to the Constitution, the ramifications of the Konishi incident linger.

For one thing, condemnation of the officer’s statements has been qualified. Though Onodera insisted the officer was wrong he also pointed out that as a citizen he has a right to his opinion, as well as a right to express it. Lawmaker Masashi Nakano of the Party for Japanese Kokoro tweeted that Konishi must contemplate why the officer said such things to him.

Another person who apologized directly to Konishi was Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the SDF’s Joint Staff, who assured reporters that civilian control of the SDF was not at risk: The incident should not in any way be likened to the situation before World War II. When asked what motivated the officer to attack Konishi, Kawano said the matter was still under investigation (Sankei Shimbun later reported that the investigation had not confirmed the “enemy of the people” outburst), but added that while present SDF members “disagreed” with the officer’s actions they “understood his feelings.”

Konishi, media have pointed out, has been a thorn in the government’s side for a while when it comes to the SDF. He is vehemently against Japan’s participation in overseas collective self-defense activities and has spearheaded the opposition’s scrutiny of the cover-up of Ground Self-Defense Force logs kept during their missions in Iraq and South Sudan.  A May 1 feature in the Asahi Shimbun written by SDF reporter Kuniichi Tanida drew attention to Konishi’s “performances” in the Diet when discussing security issues, once referring to Foreign Ministry bureaucrats as being mentally challenged and tweeting in 2015 that the mothers of SDF members were worried that their sons are going be sent abroad to “kill children.” These matters have made Konishi a bete noire among some SDF personnel, Tanida says.

The officer’s actions are significant in light of Abe’s current push to normalize the SDF as a Japanese institution, but the public already takes the SDF for granted, claims Tanida, citing a 2015 Cabinet Office survey that found 90 percent of respondents were “interested” in the state of the SDF, with only 5 percent admitting to having a “bad impression” of it. Nevertheless, the officer is obviously frustrated with politics and fears that the SDF’s status is not firmly established, which is why Abe wants it mentioned in the Constitution by name.

Tabloid Nikkan Gendai, playing out its self-appointed role as provocateur, ran a story on April 19 that suggested if the Constitution were amended the way Abe wants, then SDF members who share the young officer’s views might become more vocal. As it turns out he grew up in Yamaguchi Prefecture, not far from Abe’s constituency. In middle school and high school he was an athlete and later won awards for brush calligraphy as an SDF member. Even after joining the SDF, he kept winning athletics prizes. In 2005, he graduated from the National Defense Academy and quickly rose within the ranks. He became a major working for the Joint Staff, a very prominent position for a man in his 30s. He is described as being tall, fit and good-looking. Gendai asks why such an intelligent, ambitious, disciplined young man did something as “stupid” as throw a tantrum in public.

Takao Izutsu, a former Ground SDF ranger, told Gendai that the officer symbolizes the politicization of the SDF since Abe returned to the premiership in 2012. Kawano is known to be an Abe favorite. His tenure as chief of the Joint Staff has been extended twice since 2015 despite his reaching mandatory retirement age. Izutsu thinks Kawano promotes personnel whose opinions mirror that of the current administration. Consequently, the young officer may have felt it was not only his right, but also his duty to put Konishi in his place.

Does his thinking represent that of the SDF membership? They may find Konishi’s tactics overbearing, but that doesn’t mean they oppose what he’s trying to do, which is prevent them from being placed unnecessarily in harm’s way.

Next week this column will discuss one SDF member who is questioning the government’s security philosophy.