TOKYO -- In a fresh blow to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the defense minister is now under heavy fire for urging voters to support a particular ruling party candidate she said has the backing of Japan's defense forces.
Tomomi Inada, stumping Tuesday for a candidate from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the Tokyo assembly election, said that "the Defense Ministry, the Self-Defense Forces, the defense minister and the LDP" were counting on voters' support. Critics say her comments undermined the SDF's neutrality and Inada herself crossed the line as a public servant required to stay above the political fray.
Four major opposition parties demanded Inada's removal in a joint statement Wednesday. "She can step down, or the prime minister can dismiss her -- those are the only options," said Renho, president of the leading opposition Democratic Party.
"She should be fired immediately," Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii said.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike was similarly harsh. "It's unbelievable," she said. "It's like if I told public servants in Tokyo to support my candidate. She shouldn't mix up these things."
Koike served as Japan's first female defense minister and is now running a campaign against the LDP as the leader of the Tomin First no Kai regional party.
While Abe plans to retain Inada, he apologized for the incident on the stump Wednesday. "The LDP has been reprimanded severely" for her gaffe, he said. The incident comes at a time when Abe himself is grappling with a favoritism scandal involving a veterinary school run by a friend.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also came to her defense. "Inada acknowledged her statement was misleading, and she retracted and apologized for it," Suga said. But some LDP members believe Abe should quickly reshuffle his cabinet to contain the situation, depending on the outcome of Sunday's vote in Tokyo.
By law, SDF members cannot engage in any political activity beyond voting. While the defense minister is not subject to this rule, her comment implied that her ministry and the SDF were throwing their support behind a specific candidate.
"What she said did not necessarily violate the law," Waseda Law School professor Masanori Okada said. "But speaking as if she were representing the ministry and the SDF likely goes against the spirit of the law."
Meanwhile, cabinet members still fall under a legal ban on public servants using their positions in political campaigns.
"Inada was addressing the public, not SDF members, so we cannot immediately say she was abusing her position as defense minister," Yamanashi Gakuin University law professor Norimasa Miyoshi argued. The comment itself was nonetheless "inappropriate," he said.