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Inada's call for votes as defense minister raises doubts about her qualifications

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada gets into a car to leave the Defense Ministry in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on June 28, 2017. (Mainichi)

A stump speech Defense Minister Tomomi Inada gave in support of a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election has once again brought into question whether Inada is fit to serve her Cabinet position.

The most recent gaffe came on June 27, when Inada said that she was calling as defense minister, and on behalf of the Defense Ministry, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the LDP, for voters to cast their ballots for the LDP Tokyo Assembly candidate in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward, for whom she was campaigning.

The remark was one that could be seen as a simplistic use of the SDF for political purposes. While a source close to the prime minister's office said that her comment was made "in a cavalier fashion that would normally be unthinkable," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears intent on keeping Inada at her post.

Inada announced hours after she made the comment that she was retracting it, since it could cause "misinterpretation," but the latest blunder is certain to deal a blow to the LDP in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasized at a press conference on June 28 that he saw no reason for Inada to resign, since she already withdrew her comment. "Government organizations are politically neutral, and cannot support specific candidates," he said.

However, the contents of Inada's remark could be interpreted as encouraging SDF personnel and Defense Ministry employees, both of whom are under her direct supervision, to partake in acts that could run afoul of the law. Even members of the government and the LDP have expressed doubts about Inada's ability to fulfill her post.

"Inada has confused affairs of the state with her official duties. You can't ask voters for their support for a specific candidate in the capacity of Cabinet member or on behalf of the ministry you lead," a former Cabinet member said. "What she's done is unbelievable."

The Constitution stipulates that "All public officials are servants of the whole community and not of any group thereof." Moreover, national government personnel, including those in "special service positions" are prohibited from using their status to conduct political activities under Article 136 of the Public Offices Election Act. Defense Ministry employees and SDF personnel are limited from political activity with the exception of voting, under Article 102 of the National Public Service Act and Article 61 of the Self-Defense Forces Act, respectively.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the three highest ministerial ranks -- the minister, the state minister and the parliamentary vice minister -- are considered special service positions under the National Public Service Act, which bars them from campaigning under the Public Offices Election Act.

A senior government official said June 28 that after looking into the matter of Inada's remark, they concluded she had "not been in violation of the law." But Inada called for support of a specific LDP Tokyo Assembly candidate "as the defense minister" and "on behalf of the Defense Ministry and the SDF," and there's no denying the possibility that such a statement violates several laws.

In particular, the fact that Inada called for voters to select the LDP candidate "on behalf of the SDF" is problematic far beyond the use of her position as a Cabinet member.

Taking to heart the lessons from Japan's prewar military-led government, the SDF, as an organization with the capacity to use force, is required to maintain strict political neutrality. When the director-general of the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau called on bureau staff to vote in the February 2012 mayoral election in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan, he was given a warning by his superiors. The SDF's Chief of Staff, Joint Staff, Katsutoshi Kawano, was called out when he said last month that he was "grateful" for Prime Minister Abe's announcement about his aspirations to specifically write the SDF's existence into the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Inada's cavalier remarks raises questions about whether she even understands the delicate nature of the things she is talking about. "It's unavoidable that the comments Inada has made as the highest official overseeing particularly contentious organizations like the defense ministry and the SDF make people doubt her qualifications as defense minister," said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.

The question of whether Inada is fit to serve as defense minister has come up multiple times since she took over the post last August. In response to questions in the Diet in February about the use of the term "combat" in daily reports written by SDF personnel on a U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, Inada insisted that what took place had been '"combat' in the general sense of the word, but in the legal sense it was an 'armed clash.'" When asked for clarification, she said, "The expression 'combat' would be problematic under Article 9 of the Constitution, so we use the term 'armed clash' instead." She also admitted earlier this year to having been involved as a defense attorney in a civil suit brought against the scandal-hit Moritomo Gakuen educational corporation, after she had categorically denied having had any ties.

Prime Minister Abe, the very person who appointed Inada as defense minister, has indicated that he will keep Inada at her post. Meanwhile, in reference to Inada's slew of gaffes, a source close to the prime minister said on the condition of anonymity, "I have no idea why she says the things she says."

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