Japan has suffered from a leadership deficit since the charismatic Koizumi Junichiro stepped down in 2006.

With the recent launch of the Noda Yoshihiko cabinet, Japan has had six prime ministers in the past five years. The revolving-door of political leadership matters because it handicaps Japan’s ability to handle challenges, both domestic and global. Nowhere are these challenges more apparent than in the security field.

Because no prime minister can micro-manage Japan’s security policies, it is necessary to appoint the best and brightest as defense minister.

Unfortunately, at a time when Japan faces enormous security challenges, Noda appointed a self-described security layman, Ichikawa Yasuo, as defense minister.

Domestically, Japanese leaders are focused on a panoply of issues. Be it reconstruction from the quake and tsunami, problems at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the strong yen, Japan’s high level of debt or long-term demographic challenges, political leadership is required to devise and implement effective policies in a divided Diet.

The same is true of maintaining Japan’s global engagement. Japan continues to be a top donor to developing countries and international institutions like the World Bank, UN, and IMF, an advocate of greenhouse gas reduction and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and actively works with others in the fields of anti-terrorism and anti-piracy. Political leadership is required to not only maintain these initiatives, but promote Japan’s strengths as effective tools to address these issues.

The domestic challenges and global initiatives are difficult by themselves and will require Noda expend an enormous amount of political capital to be successful. Missing from this is the large number of security challenges that require serious attention by Japan’s security establishment.

The most obvious is the ongoing effort to resolve the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. At present, both Tokyo and Washington remain committed to closing Futenma by transferring its air functions to the northern part of the island and relocating 8,000 Marines and 9,000 dependents to Guam. Although both sides agreed to scrap a 2014 deadline, the onus of forward movement is largely on Tokyo (assuming Noda’s continuous commitment).

This is because both local residents and Gov. Nakaima Hirokazu remain opposed to the plan.

With Nakaima’s signature required for land reclamation, it will be up to Ichikawa to provide a detailed explanation of the value of the current relocation plan to convince not only Nakaima, but local residents as well.

Next consider the issue of China. Beijing continues to pursue double-digit military spending and naval expansion at the same time its vessels infiltrate Japanese waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) views this behavior with caution.

Noda too has gone on record as saying China’s behavior poses a risk. While Chinese behavior poses a long-term challenge to the naval balance of power in East Asia, in the short-term its behavior carries implications for regional freedom of navigation and permissible behavior in another country’s territorial waters that together could have long-term cumulative consequences.

It is up to Ichikawa to find the balance between protecting Japan’s territory and sea lines of communication, exploiting resources within Japan’s claimed EEZ, and improving ties with Beijing.

Add to this the apparent willingness by the Noda administration to review long-standing positions on Japan’s arms export ban and collective self-defense. Since 1967, government policy has prohibited exporting indigenously developed weapons or weapons-related technology. This has prevented Japan from cooperating with others to develop advanced weapons.

Likewise, long-standing constitutional interpretation limits usage of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to individual self-defense, not the defense of others. This has limited Japan’s role in overseas military operations as well as permissible actions vis-à-vis the U.S. if Japan were attacked. Previous administrations under the Liberal Democratic Party attempted to revise these, only to end in failure.

Even Noda’s predecessor backed down from possible revisions. Given that revision in either area is expected to encounter strong resistance from the leftwing of Noda’s party as well as pacifist elements of Japanese society, it will be up to Ichikawa to provide detailed explanations of why these revisions are necessary and beneficial for Japan’s security.

These three issues are enormous challenges by themselves, but are only a snapshot of a longer list of concerns. Other issues that will fall under Ichikawa’s responsibility include the problem of North Korea, maintaining steady-yet simultaneously deepening-alliance relations with the U.S., maintaining Japan’s involvement in anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, and possibly dispatching SDF units to South Sudan for a peacekeeping mission.

Most of these issues will require some level of involvement by Noda, but they all require the highest level of involvement by Ichikawa. Ichikawa will require knowledge of details, interconnected problems, and Japan’s overarching security strategy.

Yet, this is problematic because Ichikawa is an expert in agricultural issues, having worked for 25 years as a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He has no background in security issues. In a Sept. 2 interview, he went as far to admit he was a layman (shirouto) when it comes to national security issues.

His honesty is frightening. At a time when Japan faces numerous security challenges that require the knowledge and leadership of a security expert, Noda appointed a security layman. While it is easy to criticize Ichikawa for being a novice, the blame rests on Noda.

Noda could have appointed a security expert from his Democratic Party of Japan. Two logical choices are Maehara Seiji or Nagashima Akihisa. Or, he could have re-appointed the MOD’s longest serving Minister, Kitazawa Toshimi, a politician who gained respect for his handling of defense issues. Instead, at a time when a premium needs to be placed on security expertise, Noda chose an expert in agricultural issues. Noda had a choice, but he chose wrongly.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author

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