Japan’s Sensible New Defense Chief
Image Credit: Wikicommons / Joi Ito

Japan’s Sensible New Defense Chief


Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently reshuffled his cabinet as a means of courting the support of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for legislation related to increasing the consumption tax. Noda replaced five of his 18 cabinet members, including Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka and Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism Minister Takeshi Maeda, both of whom were censured in the House of Councilors. Yet, the change that has drawn the most attention is the appointment of Tanaka’s successor, Satoshi Morimoto. This is because Morimoto is an academic, not a politician, making him the first non-politician to become Japan’s top defense chief since World War II. But although the media and opposition parties have joined in criticizing his appointment, Noda’s choice deserves praise. Finally, Japan has a defense minister with unquestionable expertise.

Morimoto is perhaps Japan’s leading expert in defense and security issues. After graduating from the National Defense University, he spent close to fifteen years in the Air Self-Defense Forces and then served as the Director of National Security Policy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Upon retiring as a civil servant, Morimoto became an academic scholar. Not only does he have an impressive resume of security-related articles and books, he also makes regular appearances on TV programs to discuss security-related topics. He also has served as an advisor to various LDP cabinets on security issues, was a member of an LDP-initiated council tasked with strengthening the functions of the Prime Minister’s Office in regards to national security affairs, was a member of an LDP-created expert panel examining the creation of a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council, and was appointed by LDP Prime Minister Taro Aso as a special adviser to Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada in 2009.

At the same time as Morimoto’s views find resonance in the LDP, they also correspond closely with the United States, where he has deep connections. He’s a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance, believing that security threats by China or North Korea are best dealt with within this framework. This is an extremely strong asset given Noda’s signaling of strengthening ties with the U.S. In addition, he takes a critical view of China and supports Japan, strengthening its maritime defenses to prevent China from seizing Japan’s outlying islands. At the same time, he promotes diplomatic means to resolve Tokyo’s main territorial dispute with Beijing. Finally, he’s a known conservative in his views of what Japan can and should do in the security realm, and believes in a stronger role for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). He also supports Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defense.

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With no questions about Morimoto’s credentials, the media and LDP have looked to other issues. Specifically, how Morimoto’s status as a non-politician and his views on Okinawa will impact his ability to be an effective defense minister. Neither of these concerns has merit.

Consider first Morimoto’s status as a non-politician. Under the Constitution, there’s no legal restriction against a non-politician becoming a minister. What troubles some is that a non-elected official endangers Japan’s civilian control because he’s unable to be held accountable via his “political life” for any action he takes as minister. A lesser concern is how well he can function as minister given that he’ll have few political allies.

Both concerns are weak. In regards to the first, the defense minister isn’t the commander-in-chief who decides on SDF deployment. Rather, he’s like the premier. With an elected official retaining this right, there’s no danger to civilian control. Moreover, although the defense minister lacks direct electoral accountability, there are other options to hold him indirectly accountable. The Diet has the ability to censure ministers for misdeeds, thereby allowing it to register disapproval of a minister’s behavior. While it doesn’t remove him from office, it nevertheless puts considerable pressure on the prime minister to hold his ministers accountable, which was what led to the ousting of Morimoto’s predecessor. A minister can also be punished by holding the cabinet collectively accountable. Because the defense minister is as a member of the cabinet, which is accountable to the Diet, members of parliament can submit a vote of no-confidence against the cabinet if they believe the defense minister’s behavior is particularly egregious. Finally, because the Diet deliberates the defense budget, elected officials can reject and/or approve items that the Defense Minister merits necessary. Taken together, there’s very little threat to Japan’s civilian control or the ability to hold the defense minister accountable.

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