A gaffe Defense Minister Tomomi Inada made when she was stumping earlier this week for a Liberal Democratic Party candidate in Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election — asking for voters’ support of the candidate “on behalf of the Defense Ministry, the Self-Defense Forces and the LDP, and as defense minister” — appears to symbolize the deplorable lack of weight in statements made by Cabinet ministers and lawmakers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.
Inada said she “retracts” her remark hours after uttering it on Tuesday, but did not seem to understand what was wrong with the statement. She reportedly acknowledged that her remark “could be misunderstood.” But the statement she made can’t be interpreted as anything other than a blatant attempt to use the SDF organization to rally for the LDP candidate, in violation of the political neutrality required of public servants. She would not have needed to withdraw the remark if she had not meant what she said.
Inada’s account that she “wanted to express gratitude for the fact that the SDF’s activities could not be sustained without the understanding of people” in the host areas does not seem to make any sense as an explanation for the remark. If she truly meant what she said, she is too careless to be a lawmaker and her qualifications as Cabinet minister in charge of the key defense portfolio are in doubt.
Senior administration officials hope to see the problem settled now that Inada — just like many other lawmakers and ministers blamed for verbal gaffes — has withdrawn the remark. Abe, who is said to consider Inada a future potential LDP leader who shares his conservative views and has groomed her by appointing her to key LDP and Cabinet positions under his administration, has reportedly ordered her to stay in the job despite calls from the opposition parties for her ouster as defense minister. Nor has the government responded to opposition demands that an extraordinary session of the Diet be called to discuss the problems over Inada’s remarks, along with questions over the Kake Gakuen scandal.
The Abe administration may have wanted to prevent the issue from becoming protracted and to control potential damage to the LDP in the Tokyo assembly race, in which the party is seen as fighting an uphill battle against popular Gov. Yuriko Koike’s new party Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) for control of the assembly. But Abe should indeed think twice as to whether Inada is appropriate for the post of defense minister.
The Abe administration, with his ruling coalition’s sweep of national elections in recent years, his unrivaled grip on power in his own party and the weak opposition camp, has essentially had its way in Diet proceedings. But media polls taken right after the last regular legislative session closed — after the ruling coalition railroaded the contentious conspiracy bill by even cutting short Upper House committee deliberations — show the Abe Cabinet’s popular approval ratings plunging by roughly 10 percentage points, with approval outnumbered by disapproval in some of the surveys. Voters apparently find something wrong with the administration. Inada’s gaffe seems to be yet another indication of the loosening discipline within the Cabinet.
Article 15 of the Constitution states that “all public officials are servants of the whole community and not of any group thereof.” It would be unacceptable if Inada had meant to use her position as defense chief to seek voters’ support of the LDP candidate on the strength of the SDF organization. The minister made the remark when she was stumping for the LDP in Itabashi Ward — right next to Nerima Ward, where the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Eastern Army Headquarters and the First Division are located. She should realize the gravity of her own remark — which cannot be erased simply by saying it is “retracted.” If politicians are going to merely withdraw statements they have made because they were or could be “misunderstood” — a convenient phrase that leaves it vague as to whether they actually think that they erred — they should not utter them in the first place.
Abe and the LDP may be worried about the potential damage that Inada’s gaffe could have on the party’s performance in the metropolitan assembly race. They might be hoping that popular attention will shift elsewhere before Sunday’s vote. They should be worried more about keeping the lawmaker in the position of defense minister.