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Editorial: Defense Ministry must strictly deal with info cover-up to restore public trust

This country's security is not viable without the confidence of the public. Recently, a problem that damages that trust has been uncovered in the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), the very two bodies responsible for maintaining that security. More precisely, they are suspected of a systematic cover-up of information important to both the future implementation of Japan's security policy and the public's understanding of that policy -- a very serious state of affairs.

We speak, of course, about the hide-and-seek saga of the daily reports from the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) unit taking part in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. At first, the Defense Ministry said the reports had been "discarded and do not exist" within the GSDF, only to have copies turn up on the troops' computers. The ministry had previously said it had found the data in the SDF Joint Staff Office, and released part of the data to the public.

To try and keep the ministry's story consistent, the report data trove on the GSDF's computers was kept secret, and it is possible the files were then deliberately erased. When senior GSDF officers moved to make the true state of the reports public, they were apparently ordered by Defense Ministry "suits" -- as bureaucrats are referred to by uniformed SDF personnel -- attached to the Joint Staff Office to keep the story hidden.

Among the daily reports is one from July last year recounting a major clash between South Sudanese government and rebel forces in the capital Juba, where GSDF peacekeepers are based. In response to a freedom of information request filed in September, the Defense Ministry stated in December that the pertinent report had been discarded, and therefore would not be released because it no longer existed. At this point, it is impossible to say whether the ministry's response was deliberately adopted to hide the facts.

Whatever the case, this errant decision became the launching pad for what some suspect is an ever-expanding galaxy of lies, all intended to keep the Defense Ministry's story consistent. We accordingly call on the ministry to conduct a thorough investigation, punish those involved and take measures to prevent a recurrence.

Direct blame lies with the senior officials involved in the cover-up. However, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada bears a great deal of responsibility as the head of the ministry.

Some observers have pointed out that Inada, dogged by Diet accusations that she lied about her involvement with scandal-rocked nationalist private school operator Moritomo Gakuen, is losing her power to unify and guide the Defense Ministry. There are even some suspicions that vital reports have never made it to her desk. There are worries that effective civilian control of the SDF is waning under her leadership.

Inada has said that, "if there has been any material cover-up that needs to be dealt with, I will personally push reforms," and has ordered that a special inspection be conducted by the ministry's Inspector General's Office of Legal Compliance, which is directly under her control. This is all a matter of course, and what's more has come long overdue.

Furthermore, it would be unacceptable for Inada to deal severely with the scandal only to protect herself. She must judge her own responsibility just as harshly as she would that of others'.

The Defense Ministry and SDF have no room to be rocked by the cover-up scandal. It has been decided that the GSDF unit in South Sudan will be withdrawn in late May, but these bodies cannot let their guard down. North Korea recently launched four missiles into the Sea of Japan, and the United States is revising its policy stance on the regime of Kim Jong Un.

If the Defense Ministry and SDF hide things even in peacetime, how much will they seek to manipulate information in times of crisis? This is a matter of great concern.

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