Barely two weeks after he was named parliamentary vice minister for defense, Mr. Shingo Nishimura of the Liberal Party was forced to resign Wednesday over outrageous views made public in a Japanese weekly magazine. In a two-hour interview, Mr. Nishimura suggested that the Diet consider discussing whether Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons. The idea is, of course, an unacceptable departure from the nation’s three “nonnuclear principles” of not producing, possessing or allowing nuclear weapons on its soil.
Hours after the magazine appeared on newsstands Tuesday, Mr. Nishimura’s remarks had drawn a barrage of criticism. By Wednesday morning, opposition leaders were calling not only for his head, but for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa “to take responsibility” for naming him to the high-level defense post in the first place.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party also lost no time in trying to contain the damage. The LDP foreign-policy caucus immediately disavowed Mr. Nishimura’s remarks and demanded action from the party leadership. Early Wednesday morning, Mr. Obuchi told reporters that “I believe the remarks were inappropriate,” with Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki going further and calling them “extremely inappropriate” after meeting with Mr. Nishimura. Before the end of the day, Mr. Nishimura announced his resignation, so as “not to bring trouble to the Obuchi Cabinet.” His resignation was accepted immediately, and Mr. Taiichiro Nishikawa, also a member of the Liberal Party, was given the post.
Never one to mince words or shun controversy, Mr. Nishimura is known for his ultranationalist views and unbridled tongue. His biggest moment, until now, was leading an expedition to the disputed Senkaku Islands and planting a Rising Sun flag on the islet, claimed by both China and Taiwan.
Clearly, Mr. Nishimura has surpassed himself in the current controversy. Actually, his comment on nuclear armament was not the only inflammatory observation in the magazine article. Echoing ultranationalist views on Japan’s long-discredited Pacific War policies, he played with the idea of “spreading the Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere to every corner of the Earth.” He also suggested that, as a politician, his “life’s work” is to build a “fully fledged armed forces.”
The Nishimura affair, coming on the heels of the LDP’s loss in a recent Upper House by-election in Nagano Prefecture, has dealt a blow to Mr. Obuchi and his newly minted LDP-LP-New Komeito coalition. And the prime minister has no way to skirt political responsibility over the matter. After all, Mr. Obuchi himself took a strong hand in picking Cabinet ministers, as well as vice ministers, in the latest reshuffle. The idea, reasonably, is that the government needs articulate Cabinet ministers and vice ministers with a firm grip on policy issues to face the opposition under a new Diet interpellation system in which senior bureaucrats will no longer be allowed to speak for the government on policy affairs.
There is no doubt that Mr. Nishimura is articulate, but whether someone with such well-publicized extremist views should be selected to a sensitive post in the Defense Agency is an entirely different matter. So far, spokesmen in the government and Mr. Nishimura himself have labeled the offensive remarks “personal views.” Indeed, regarding the nuclear-armament suggestion, Mr. Nishimura defended himself by saying he was just trying to bring the issue to public attention and that should be no offense. Neither Mr. Nishimura nor his apologists have any idea of the weight his public statements have once he is part of government as vice minister.
Even though Mr. Nishimura has resigned, questions persist over whether naming him to the second-highest position in the Defense Agency revealed a streak of arrogance on the part in the newly fashioned coalition, which controls a big majority in both houses of Parliament. As the Nagano by-election has convincingly shown, the electorate is wary of a coalition whose principal aim is to control the Diet. Also, Mr. Obuchi and his associates must learn that the posts of parliamentary vice ministers, or Cabinet ministers for that matter, cannot be filled by the traditional political handouts, if the LDP is determined to carry out the promised government reform due in January 2001.
While it is unlikely that the government will fall over this brouhaha, it is up to the Obuchi Cabinet to take measures to restore public confidence in the nation’s essential policies. There is no question that Mr. Nishimura’s complacency has served only to damage that confidence.
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