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Uniformed Officers Gaining Control of Defense Ministry

By Michael Penn and Nobuaki Masaki

SNA (Tokyo) — Uniformed Self-Defense Forces officers are currently demanding a larger role in setting military policies, which will for the first time utilize the security legislation forced through the Diet by the ruling coalition last September. Civilian defense bureaucrats have so far rejected the demands of the uniformed officers, fearing that acquiescing will decisively tilt the power balance between the two sides within the ministry.

However, history shows that this is part of a decade-old power struggle in which civilian control over the Self-Defense Forces is gradually being loosened.

Since the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces in 1954, important matters in the organization were ratified by the Minister of Defense under the exclusive guidance of high-ranking civilian bureaucrats. This was the model of civilian control that the Japanese government had adopted until very recently, in June 2015, when the ministry was restructured to allow the uniformed officers to have “equal” roles with the civilian bureaucrats.

The seeds of this policy revision were sown in June 2004 when then-Chief of Staff Koichi Furusho expressed his wish to change the model of civilian control in order to lessen the influence of the civilian defense councillors.

It is said that Shigeru Ishiba, the then-Director-General of the then-Defense Agency (and today a government minister and prime ministerial hopeful), was sympathetic toward Furusho’s cause. Ishiba believed that amid Japan’s expanding international role and the increase in deployments to foreign soil, such as to Iraq, changes were necessary to allow the Self-Defense Forces to operate at short notice. While Ishiba did not feel able to act on his preferences immediately, he continued to be a strong advocate for giving an enhanced role to uniformed officers. In December 2007, when Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda wanted to reform the Ministry of Defense following an attempt by the Maritime Self-Defense Forces Staff to conceal a mistake regarding public information about the amount of petroleum that was being supplied to foreign warships in the Indian Ocean, Ishiba, at that point having returned as Minister of Defense, announced his own plan to remove the distinction between bureaucrats and officers for the alleged purpose of “easing the distrust” between the two sides, effectively strengthening the role of uniformed officers within the ministry.

Ishiba’s stated view of civilian control centers around his personal notion that politicians, on their own, are capable of maintaining proper civilian oversight of the military.

At least some conservative scholars agree. Associate Professor Sota Kimura of Tokyo Metropolitan University writes in The Page, “The government is currently trying abolish the system of bureaucratic control and create a system in which only the Minister of Defense and uniformed officers can directly communicate with one another, without the assistance of bureaucrats. Even if this is realized, the Prime Minister is the Commander-in-Chief, and it is difficult to make the case that this is a violation of the civilian control that is required by the Constitution, and is unconstitutional.”

However, Kimura adds that there is a reason why the Constitution guarantees civilian control: “Because [SDF officers] participate in strategies that they risk their lives for, and strong bonds are created within the organization. As a result, unique rules and values also tend to be born. Yet, because the use of the Self-Defense Forces has a large impact on diplomacy and the lives of citizens, it is not preferable to use it simply on the basis of the rules and values within the organization. This is why the Constitution determines that the Self-Defense Forces needs to be controlled by people from the outside.”

Nakatani ANA

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani

Current Defense Minister Gen Nakatani has insisted that “civilian control is still present” following the new demands of the uniformed officers. Yet many believe that Nakatani, who is himself a retired SDF officer, is all too willing to tilt the power balance.

On March 3, Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the Democratic Party of Japan asked Nakatani in the House of Representatives, “Even though [past prime ministers] have said that bureaucratic control ‘is an important form of civilian control,’ do you believe otherwise?”

Nakatani responded, “The meaning of civilian control is precisely control by the politicians. In my view, civilian control is something that the Minister of Defense, who is a politician, the Vice-Minister of Defense, and the Secretary can ensure.”

Michael Penn is President of the Shingetsu News Agency and Nobuaki Masaki is a contributing writer.