Japan's Defence Minister Tomomi Inada announces her resignation during a news conference at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo, Japan July 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s resignation last week is better viewed as being symptomatic of the problems with Japanese defense policy than of her shortcomings as a defense minister.

Inada was criticized from the start for her lack of defense experience and her allegedly right-wing beliefs. But consider her recent predecessors. One’s main qualification was having a famous wife. Another was an unexceptional Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) officer before trying his hand at politics. As defense minister he acquiesced in the purging or sidelining of the GSDF’s leading reformers. Another two were up to their ears in Yakuza. Itsunori Onodera, while having no more defense experience than Inada (for which he was never criticized), showed promise before unspecified events led to his premature removal.

Despite Inada’s missteps, give her some credit for some things that at least happened on her watch. The Japan Self Defense Force continued and expanded its overseas activities. The warship JS Izumo sailed through the South China Sea, en route to the Malabar exercise with the Indians and American navies. Earlier, the JS Izumo even escorted a US Navy vessel for the first time as part of an American response to North Korean provocations.

Meanwhile, Japanese forces conducted an unprecedented four-way amphibious exercise with British, French, and American forces, and Japan earlier signed an ACSA (bilateral supply) agreement with the Australians. Recently, Japan signed a defense cooperation agreement with Germany. And the US relationship at least stayed firm during her tenure, even if practical joint operational capabilities languish.

A Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) soldier participates in a drill to mobilize a Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile unit in Asaka, north of Tokyo, Japan, on June 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Issei Kato

Now consider what Inada was accused of as she endured death by a thousand cuts. She resigned last week over claims that she helped to cover up knowledge of the danger faced by Japanese peacekeepers in South Sudan. Could anyone on the planet not have known South Sudan was dangerous? A little context helps. Compare Inada’s missteps with the bigger security problems facing Japan – a PRC itching to teach the Japanese a lesson and seize Japanese territory, and North Korean missiles edging closer and closer.

Much of the commentariat – both Japanese and American – seems to have been worrying too much about Ms. Inada and not enough about the real dangers facing Japan.

Defense ministers may not matter very much in Japan. Japan’s defense policy has a momentum of its own (not to mention obscure origins) that a minister can’t much affect. This owes much to the byzantine (and ferocious) bureaucratic infighting within the MOD itself, as well as the various military services often viewing each other as enemies. Also, many politicians see defense as unimportant, and the post of defense minister as merely a sinecure that opens the door to other opportunities. Both the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Finance have long considered the Defense Ministry to be staffed by incompetents.

Much of the commentariat – both Japanese and American – seems to have been worrying too much about Ms. Inada and not enough about the real dangers facing Japan

Moreover, Japan’s leftist media, often with 60s-era radicals and their acolytes running the show, are quick to find fault with any defense minister. In their paranoid worldview, 1930s militarism and Hideki Tojo are always just around the corner.

Lost in the fuss over Inada is that Japan still lacks a coherent national defense strategy and a properly resourced JSDF capable of carrying it out. Japan’s air, navy, and ground forces remain, as often as not, warring tribes unable to operate together, and problems are compounded by underfunded defense budgets. Ultimately, Japan’s defense strategy, such as it is, is based on the hope that the Americans will take care of things.

After last week’s North Korean missile test, which landed well within Japan’s EEZ and not so far from Japanese turf, Prime Minister Abe referred to the Kim regime’s activities as a “clear and present danger” to Japan. To which North Korea’s Premier Kim, were he from Brooklyn, might fairly have responded: “So, whuddya gonna do about it?”

Although it’s impolite to say so, there really isn’t much Abe can do given the state of Japan’s defenses. It’s impressive on paper and puts on good staged displays, while the country’s government talks up every cordial meeting with American civilian and military counterparts as proof that the “relationship has never been stronger.”

This situation is not Inada’s doing, but if you wish to blame her, at least add in fairness that it’s the collective achievement of all her predecessors. One might more correctly point the finger at several generations of Japanese and American “alliance managers” who were content with building a misshapen JSDF and a Japanese national defense pathologically dependent on the USA.

Members of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces’ infantry unit stand to attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka, Japan. Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

Inada’s replacement will come along soon enough (for who knows how long and with what baggage), but it won’t make much difference. You could appoint James Mattis as Japan’s defense minister and he’d have no better results.

It won’t be a defense minister who fixes Japan’s defense. Rather, it is a job for a Prime Minister and enough responsible politicians (and bureaucrats) with backbone, combined with a US administration willing to offend Japanese sensibilities.

Will Japan wake up? Probably not until a North Korean missile slams into Tokyo or the Chinese sink an MSDF ship or grab a Japanese island. Until then, the focus will be on nitpicking whoever follows Tomomi Inada.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies

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