Features | Security | East Asia

Japan’s Sensible New Defense Chief

The choice of Satoshi Morimoto to head Japan’s Defense Ministry has surprised many. But the media and opposition party criticism is misplaced.

By Jeffrey W. Hornung for

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.

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.

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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.

Likewise, it’s unlikely that Morimoto’s lack of Diet experience will put him at a disadvantage. While he lacks political party affiliation, the fact that he has worked closely with the LDP over the past two decades means he has close allies in the party. Moreover, because he’s a member of a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) cabinet, it’s expected the DPJ will support him. One could argue that his appointment benefits the current DPJ government because Morimoto has such strong connections across parties, particularly the LDP. What is more, given his long connection with bureaucrats in both MOFA and the Defense Ministry, he should be able to work well with those who actually craft policies. He speaks their language and is well respected within the ministries given his deep knowledge of security issues and his prioritization of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In the end, given his experience both with politicians and civil servants, Morimoto brings with him a vast network of contacts that can only be regarded as an asset to the government.

As to the issue of Okinawa, Morimoto’s stated views on Okinawa don’t put him at a disadvantage relative to any other person. Morimoto has a long history of involvement in the issue of Okinawa’s strategic value and U.S. presence. Because he supports a U.S. Marine presence and supports the plan to relocate the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in southern Okinawa to the Henoko area in Nago in the north, there are concerns his appointment will make it more difficult for Tokyo to deal with Naha and resolve the Futenma problem.

Given that the mayors of Ginowan and Nago and the governor of Okinawa support closing Futenma and oppose its relocation to Henoko, it’s unclear how Morimoto’s appointment is more detrimental than anyone else. While gaffes and inconsistencies from government officials have made relations with Naha difficult, it’s the staunch opposition from Okinawa that make negotiations over Futenma’s relocation difficult, not the personal views of any one cabinet official. One could actually argue that what is needed is a person with a deep knowledge of the issue to be able to have meaningful talks with Naha and explore all options. From that perspective, if one were able to choose a person to task with reducing the burden on Okinawa while maintaining strong ties with the U.S., Morimoto would be the best choice.

The one concern about Morimoto’s appointment that hasn’t been raised is the issue of what his appointment means for the DPJ. Morimoto has long been tied to the LDP and has been vocally critical of the DPJ’s security policies. Given this, why would the DPJ extend the appointment? Having to search outside the party for a highly capable security expert highlights the fact that the DPJ (like the LDP) has a finite number of security experts. Although two other very capable DPJ security experts exist (Seiji Maehara and Akihisa Nagashima), neither were chosen. Nor was Vice Defense Minister Shu Watanabe elevated to replace Tanaka. If Noda wanted to reach out a conciliatory hand to the LDP, why did he not ask any of the LDP security experts: Shigeru Ishiba, Gen Nakatani, or Yasukazu Hamada? The fact that Noda went outside the DPJ raises a red flag on the DPJ’s depth in security expertise.

Make no mistake, Morimoto has unparalleled expertise, making him the best choice to task with maintaining Japan’s peace and security and promoting international peace cooperation activities by the SDF. Morimoto’s appointment couldn’t have come at a better time. The Asia-Pacific is undergoing profound shifts in the balance of power, with the U.S. refocusing on the region at the same time that China appears to be more assertive. Add to this a continuously provocative North Korea and a possibly resurgent Russia in the Pacific. Together, this adds up to an extremely challenging security environment. None of Japan’s recent Defense Ministers have had the expertise to think deeply and speak competently about these issues. Morimoto can. For that, Noda made the right decision.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, the U.S. Pacific Command, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.