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Editorial: Inada's resignation raises questions about civilian control of SDF

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada resigned on July 28 to take responsibility for the cover-up of logs kept by Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) peacekeepers. Administrative Vice Defense Minister Tetsuro Kuroe, the top bureaucrat in the ministry, also stepped down while GSDF Chief of Staff Toshiya Okabe is set to quit his job shortly.

This is an abnormal situation that has shaken up the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which are responsible for Japan's security.

The outcome of a special inspection by the Defense Ministry, which was released on July 28, shows that electronic data of the logs, which apparently was discarded by the GSDF, actually existed, revealing that the unit covered up the data as an entity. The revelations have forced the top three concerned officials to resign to assume responsibility for the cover-up.

The scandal dates back to July 2016, when South Sudan government forces and anti-government forces clashed in Juba, the country's capital, where GSDF personnel were participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Logs that Japanese peacekeepers keep and send to the GSDF in Japan are uploaded to an online bulletin board that certain top officials of the SDF can access as official documents.

The Defense Ministry accepted a freedom of information request for access to documents recording communications between the peacekeepers and the GSDF shortly after the military clash in Juba.

However, the GSDF excluded logs from documents to be disclosed on the grounds that the logs were personal materials and not official documents.

Furthermore, in response to a freedom of information request filed in October last year for logs compiled when the clash occurred, the GSDF refused to disclose the documents saying they had already been discarded even though they existed.

However, when a re-investigation was launched after the GSDF's decision not to disclose these logs, the GSDF deleted the logs concerned to keep consistency with its explanation that the documents had been discarded.

The vice minister and other high-ranking officials who had been briefed of the matter treated the logs as "personal materials" and decided to withhold the existence of the logs.

Top officials provided false explanations to keep consistency with their initial cover-up and then destroyed evidence to conceal the existence of the logs. They deserve criticism that they conducted a deliberate cover-up operation.

Close attention was focused on whether Defense Minister Inada was involved in the cover-up process. During questioning by the Inspector General's Office of Legal Compliance, the GSDF claimed that it notified Inada of the existence of the logs and gained permission from her to withhold the documents. However, the defense minister denied that she had been notified of the existence of the documents or had agreed to withhold them, contradicting the GSDF's claim.

A report on the outcome of the special inspection states that "the possibility cannot be ruled out that the existence of the electronic data of the GSDF logs was mentioned" during talks between Inada and top officers of the GSDF's Ground Staff Office. The report thus fails to clear doubts about whether Inada was notified of the existence of the logs.

Inada has also told the Diet that she was never informed of the existence of the logs. Therefore, she should appear before the Diet as an unsworn witness to fulfill her accountability to the legislature, even though she has stepped down.

Confusion within the Defense Ministry and the GSDF over the existence of logs has raised questions about whether Inada controlled the SDF as a civilian minister.

Inada also came under fire in the Diet over her relations with Moritomo Gakuen, a scandal-hit school operator, raising questions within the SDF about her leadership skills.

Inada's ability to control the SDF, which is comprised of some 230,000 members, has constantly been called into question. As such, her resignation came too late.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to settle the confusion within the ministry and the SDF while admitting that he is responsible for appointing Inada as defense minister.

It is believed that Abe has paid close attention to Inada since she was in her first term as a House of Representatives member and he appointed her to such high-ranking posts as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Policy Research Council because they share conservative thoughts.

However, Inada's words and deeds have been criticized by many. In a campaign speech for an LDP candidate in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, Inada said, "I would like to ask for your support on behalf of the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces, as the defense minister, and on behalf of the Liberal Democratic Party," which sparked calls urging that she be sacked.

Despite these problems, Abe had defended Inada, even after she offered to resign at an early stage. This suggests that the prime minister did not allow her to step down.

Abe has proposed that Article 9 of the Constitution, which renounces war and bans Japan from possessing any war potential, be amended to clearly define the SDF and silence those who insist that the SDF is unconstitutional.

Abe appointed Inada as defense minister in an apparent bid to help her advance her career path. A series of blunders by Inada highlights the shallowness of the prime minister's argument for constitutional revisions.

Following the special inspection, the Defense Ministry is poised to review its management of internal documents, extending the period of preserving logs from less than one year to 10 years.

A government document recording negotiations with the Moritomo Gakuen school operator over the sale of state-owned land had been discarded because it was only supposed to have been preserved for less than one year, hindering efforts to get to the bottom of the questionable land deal.

Sloppy management of documents is a problem involving the entire government. The way the government manages documents should be fundamentally reviewed to prevent documents that are inconvenient to the government from being classified as those that only need to be preserved for less than a year or being labeled as personal materials. The government also needs to sew up loopholes for information preservation or disclosure.

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