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Is Japan ready for a real crisis? Cover-up scandal reveals risks

Culture of hiding inconvenient information could hamper decision making

Tomomi Inada confirmed her departure as Japan's defense minister Friday.

TOKYO -- North Korea has tested yet another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). While the rest of the world nervously watched North Korea over the past two days, Japan was rocked by an ugly cover-up scandal that raised doubts about the readiness of the nation's defense apparatus to handle a real crisis.

Tomomi Inada told reporters Friday that she was stepping down as defense minister over the allegations of misleading the public about activity records kept by troops on a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. She also said that a special investigation into the incident had revealed a deliberate attempt to hide the documents.

Asked whether the ministry has a culture of hiding information, Inada responded that "we do not intend to keep things from the Japanese people, and we definitely need to improve the way we release information to the public."

Not walking the talk

But the Defense Ministry did try to hide the logs from the people. The ministry turned down freedom of information requests made last year in July and October for access to the documents, with the Ground Self-Defense Force claiming they no longer existed. Evidence suggests someone later ordered the logs to be destroyed.

The records, which eventually were released, indicate major fighting occurred in South Sudan's capital of Juba while the SDF was in the country. Because Japanese troops are allowed to engage in peacekeeping operations only when a cease-fire is in place, the ministry likely was concerned that this information would upend the basic premise of the SDF mission in the country.

Such cover-ups are not only illegal, they also pose serious security risks. Though the mission did not result in any casualties, the outcome could have been vastly different in an active military conflict. Inconvenient information must be shared throughout the ministry so it can be reflected in future decisions. Inada should attend the recess Diet session being convened to discuss the allegations and explain what happened in her own words.

"In a war, we would need to gather so much more information than we do now and incorporate [it] into our strategy," a former defense minister said. "I worry whether the current system will really be enough."

It is also crucial that the public remains informed, since no military activity can succeed without its support and understanding. The U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq, for example, came under heavy criticism when key information was found to be manipulated or covered up. Japan cannot return to deceiving its people, as it did during World War II by claiming retreating troops were simply being "relocated."

Dysfunctional system

Uniformed SDF officers "don't like to see their activities become constrained and are usually wary of disclosing information," a government source said. Overcoming such a culture is the job of the civilian leadership, including the Defense Ministry. But the mechanism failed this time for two main reasons.

Firstly, Inada, who lacked prior defense or diplomatic experience, was not qualified to lead the Defense Ministry or the 200,000-plus members of the armed forces.

"The minister is being very studious, and she's finally getting the hang of things," an SDF official had said coolly several months into her term.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also should be held accountable for giving her the post in the first place.

And secondly, Japan's civilian control over the SDF is not fully developed. Ideally, the civilian leadership would use its far-ranging insights into national security, domestic policies and foreign affairs to craft a defense strategy. Uniformed officers would support the process using their professional knowledge and experience with the armed forces.

But recent developments have shed light on a deep rivalry between the two sides. The Ground SDF, frustrated by the preliminary outcome of the investigation into the allegations of a cover-up, is suspected of leaking Inada's possible involvement.

Japan has experienced no combat since World War II, depending instead on the U.S. for its defense. "The country has focused on managing the SDF's activities under [the constitution's war-renouncing] Article 9, and neglected to make serious efforts to iron out our defense apparatus," another former defense minister said.

But Japan needs to make a change. In hopes of keeping the region stable, the country has enacted new security legislation so the SDF can provide logistic support to the U.S. military. Though this decision was not mistaken, Japan could face serious trouble if it does not also develop a framework capable of handling such operations.

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