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Inada scandal over SDF logs puts Abe administration in dire straits

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada frowns at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on July 21, 2017. (Mainichi)

Just days after the government denied Defense Minister Tomomi Inada's role in an alleged cover-up of daily logs filed by Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) peacekeepers, it made a dramatic about-face by stating that the defense minister, state minister and parliamentary vice minister will be subject to an investigation, which is now underway.

The Defense Ministry's Inspector General's Office of Legal Compliance has been carrying out a probe into the concealment of logs kept by GSDF personnel during a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan last year. Now that Inada and two other top ministry officials are subject to the probe in what is effectively a renewed investigation, the timeframe for releasing the probe results has been pushed back, badly derailing the government's plans to put the controversy in the rearview mirror as swiftly as possible.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a July 20 press conference, "I believe people should naturally be held accountable for the things that have been reported in the media."

Previously, the government had planned on releasing the results of the Inspector General's Office of Legal Compliance probe on July 21, ahead of off-session budget committee deliberations set to take place in both chambers of the Diet on July 24 and 25. The aim was to release an investigative report that refuted Inada's involvement, and then allow Inada to participate in the deliberations herself and deny culpability, so that the controversy could quickly be put to rest.

Such plans crumbled when reports emerged that Inada had been informed by senior GSDF officials that they would not release the logs, as well as other allegations pointing to her involvement in what is believed to have been a cover-up.

On March 16, the day after it was revealed that the GSDF had kept digital records of the logs written in South Sudan, Inada told the Diet that she had not been informed of it earlier. If the GSDF had, in fact, reported to Inada the existence of those logs, it would mean that she gave false testimony in the Diet. On July 20, Inada told reporters at the Defense Ministry that she had not been previously informed of the logs' existence, stating, "The truth is what I have been telling you all along."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is planning to reshuffle his Cabinet as early as August 3, at which time Inada is set to be dropped, as the purpose of the reshuffle is to replace Cabinet members who have contributed to the administration's plummeting approval ratings and allow it to recover and rebuild.

However, merely swapping Inada out for another defense minister may not suffice.

Inada was criticized from both ruling and opposition parties for a gaffe when stumping for a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, in which she made remarks that could be interpreted as the exploitation of the SDF for political purposes. Yet, instead of ousting Inada, Prime Minister Abe protected her. The fact that Inada has continued to make blunders has only served to highlight the misguided decisions made by the prime minister. As it was Abe himself who scouted Inada and brought her into his Cabinet, the problems she creates have a very direct impact on the Abe government as a whole.

The administration has now been forced to push back the release of the special probe's final results in order to conduct, in Suga's words, "a sweeping investigation" on the Inada scandal, or face even greater criticism.

There is no guarantee that releasing the investigative report on July 28 will draw the curtains on the issue -- an outcome desired by the Abe administration. Opposition parties are certain to demand further discussion. It's possible that before Abe can even carry out a Cabinet reshuffle, with which he aims to "dramatically change public sentiment," he will be forced to hold further off-session deliberations.

The opposition is intensifying its offensive against the administration. "The prime minister should immediately dismiss Inada," Democratic Party (DP) leader Renho told a press conference on July 20. She demanded a thorough investigation, saying, "The government must publicly release details (of the alleged cover-up), including the matter of Inada's involvement."

Suga defended Inada on July 20, emphasizing that it was only after Inada ordered an additional search for the GSDF logs in question even though she was initially told that they had been disposed of, that the digitized logs in the SDF Joint Staff were discovered. He also said, "It is important that she continue to fulfill her duties in the government with integrity." But criticism is now coming from members of the ruling parties as well. As the likelihood that Inada was involved in the GSDF cover-up grows, some are suggesting that dropping her from the Cabinet before a full-scale reshuffle would be reasonable.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's coalition partner Komeito, told reporters at the prime minister's office July 20, "It is important that she fulfill her responsibility, as defense minister, to answer questions that have arisen about what happened within the ministry."

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