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PM Abe may take political hit from defense minister's Moritomo Gakuen embroilment

"I would like Ms. Inada to thoroughly fulfill her responsibility to explain the situation, and continue to perform her duties with sincerity."

So said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of his Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, recently tied to scandal-rocked nationalist private school operator Moritomo Gakuen, during House of Representatives proceedings on March 14. In other words, Abe showed that he is prepared to defend Inada, despite persistent opposition party calls for her resignation.

If Inada does end up resigning over the Moritomo Gakuen flap (she is listed as representing the educational corporation in a civil suit in 2004, when she was a practicing lawyer), Abe will inevitably face pointed questions over her appointment to his Cabinet. In fact, it was Abe who invited Inada into politics in the first place, and has since appointed her to a number of important posts since. If she continues to be dogged by questions over her character, Abe too will absorb quite a bit of damage.

Following the March 14 Cabinet meeting, Inada spoke with Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga for about 20 minutes to explain the circumstances surrounding her Moritomo Gakuen connection. Inada told the men that she had "no memory whatsoever" of representing the school operator in court, despite records to the contrary. Abe then warned her to "check carefully."

At a news conference later that day, Suga defended Inada's March 13 claim that she had never been Moritomo Gakuen Chairman Yasunori Kagoike's attorney, saying that she had "responded based on her lack of any memory of the event. It is just as the minister said." Meanwhile, a senior government official pointed out, "It's quite common for someone not to remember something from 13 years ago," hinting that the prime minister's office is desperate to defend Inada.

Inada represented the families of two Japanese Imperial Army officers reported to have had a race to kill 100 Chinese with their swords when Japan was at war with China in a defamation case filed in 2003 against journalists and newspapers (including the Mainichi Shimbun) that covered the 1937 contest. It was at this time that then Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Acting Secretary-General Abe invited Inada to appear on his party's ticket, and she won her first Diet seat in the so-called "postal reform election" of 2005, the same year the defamation suit was dismissed.

Seven years later, following the Abe LDP's 2012 general election win, Inada took up her first Cabinet post as minister for administrative reform. In 2014, she won her third election and was selected as chairwoman of the party's Policy Research Council. Asked why Inada was advanced so quickly up the ranks, Abe told those around him that "she brings hope."

However, her August 2016 appointment as defense minister caused much grumbling, particularly from the LDP's national defense hawks. She had apparently not once attended a meeting of the party's National Defense Division or other relevant bodies, and had never been vice minister of defense, foreign affairs, or other related ministry.

Ahead of last year's Cabinet shuffle, Abe had sounded out Shigeru Ishiba, former minister of regional revitalization, about taking up the defense portfolio, but Ishiba declined emphatically. Inada, who had been viewed as a likely candidate for other ministerial posts including for economy, trade and industry, was handed the defense minister's job in what was called a "surprise personnel move."

Abe, who shares Inada's conservative political creed and views her as a future candidate for prime minister, apparently sought to give her experience in the important national security sphere. However, even fellow LDP members say the appointment has "exposed the limits of Inada's abilities," according to a mid-level LDP lawmaker.

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