The Liberal Democratic Party has rather suddenly started airing the idea of upgrading the Defense Agency to a ministry. The party proposed the upgrade in its platform for the Sept. 11 general elections and the prospects for making it happen look stronger now that New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, has agreed to support a bill to this effect. The LDP plans to submit the bill to the Diet’s ordinary session next year.

The LDP platform statement said that by upgrading the administrative status of the Defense Agency the party would be better able to encourage the Japanese people to show more respect and appreciation to Self-Defense Force members, “who are working for the nation’s independence and peace.”

That statement suggests that SDF members have not been accorded enough honor for their efforts nor instilled with enough pride in their role. The LDP’s thinking appears based on the false assumption that, because the SDF is under an agency, SDF members are unable to feel as much pride as they should in protecting the nation. Yet it is an uncontested fact that many Japanese citizens do respect and are grateful for SDF members, especially those engaged in rescue operations in disaster-hit areas in Japan and abroad.

Given the fact that the LDP has publicized a draft of a new Constitution calling for the creation of a full-fledged military force, the move to upgrade the Defense Agency looks like an attempt to rid many people of the “allergy” to the very idea of the nation having such a military force.

Time and again, the issue of upgrading the administrative status of the Defense Agency has been discussed within the LDP, but the idea has never materialized because voices within the party have said that there is nothing wrong with the Defense Agency remaining in its current status and because New Komeito has been leery of the idea.

A recent tendency toward nationalistic assertiveness by the government and the LDP under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who led the party to a landslide victory in the Sept. 11 elections and then made his fifth visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Oct. 17, has apparently served to promote the idea. Still, upgrading the Defense Agency to a ministry will cause problems from the viewpoint of maintaining civilian control of the SDF.

At present, the Defense Agency legally is an external part of the Cabinet Office. The person actually in charge of the agency is the prime minister, who also heads the Cabinet Office. Under this arrangement, when the Defense Agency chief wants to have a Cabinet meeting to consider defense-related legislation, SDF personnel affairs, or SDF mobilization in the event of an attack on Japan, he or she first must consult with and present a request to the prime minister.

In budgetary matters, the Defense Agency chief cannot independently ask the Finance Ministry for funding. He or she also must consult with and make a request to the prime minister first.

This is the foundation of civilian control of the SDF. It means strict and direct control of the organization by someone elected by the Diet as prime minister. This system also signals to other countries Japan’s intent never to return to the path of military rule or become a military power. If the Defense Agency acquires ministry status, it may directly ask the Finance Ministry for a budget and revise enforcement regulations of the SDF Law, as it deems necessary, without examination by the Cabinet Office.

Mr. Koizumi has said, “The fact that the Defense Agency continues in the status of an agency, even to this day, is strange.” What really seems strange, though, is his take on the situation. His curt statement implies that he does not understand the importance of maintaining effective civilian control of the SDF by keeping the Defense Agency under the Cabinet Office and the prime minister.

To turn the Defense Agency into a ministry without such controls might serve to give notice to neighboring countries that Japan is determined to field a more assertive military. It thus would heighten ill feeling and vigilance toward Japan, especially in China and South Korea.

New Komeito is said to have accepted the idea of turning the Defense Agency into a ministry under a political deal in which the LDP, for New Komeito’s support of the agency upgrade bill, agreed to New Komeito’s proposal to extend the child-support allowance, which currently covers up to third graders, to up to sixth graders.

New Komeito deserves criticism for making such a concession, which could result in damaging an important part of the overall mechanism for civilian control of the SDF. The party should reflect on the fact that its decision runs counter to its long-standing call for improving Japan’s relations with neighboring countries.

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