Tokyo Puts a Pro in Charge — for a Change

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Japan Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto

TOKYOJapan finally has a defense minister who knows what he’s doing – and it couldn’t come at a worse time. Satoshi Morimoto, a prominent national security analyst and government advisor who served in both the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the Foreign Ministry, was named to the defense post on Monday. He becomes Japan’s third defense minister since September; his predecessors, career politicians, were fired for incompetence.

Morimoto takes office in one of the most challenging defense environments of Japan’s post-war era. China is expanding its military at a breakneck pace and claiming sole rights to territory throughout the region. The U.S. is sending troops and ships and lining up allies in a much-publicized “pivot” towards Asia. Japan is swinging its ground forces south to face China, and debating fundamental changes in the roles, missions and operations of its self-defense forces. Though agreement was reached to shift thousands of Marines to locations outside Japan, U.S. military bases on Okinawa remain a volatile domestic issue.

The 71-year-old Morimoto will find few allies in Japan’s fractious politics. He is the first defense minister since the Second World War who is not a member of the Diet. That’s a big deal in a country that still nurses a deep distrust of the military and where renunciation of war is written – right there in black and white — into Japan’s constitution.

“A private citizen has never been appointed to the post of minister or vice minister. That’s because there was an unwritten rule that an elected official will take responsibility” for national defense, said Shigeru Ishiba, a member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, and himself a former defense minister. “Morimoto’s insight is of unparalleled quality. But he should not be appointed to this post.”

Equally problematic, Morimoto is a longtime supporter of plans to relocate, rather than remove, a controversial Marine airbase on Okinawa. It’s an issue that Tokyo has failed to resolve since 1996 and, while everyone is frankly sick of it, no one has come up with an answer.

“Morimoto is a fine gentleman and very smart on defense and security issues,” says Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. “But he’s no politician. I would assume his biggest challenge will involve learning the political ropes and gaining credibility with politicians from both sides. But at some point someone has to decide on the [Okinawa base issue], so why should he be different from all of his predecessors?”

It’s no surprise that Morimoto’s appointment has been quietly cheered by Japan’s defense community. The last two defense ministers were long-serving Diet members but had no virtually no background, and little apparent interest, in defense issues. Gaffes, goofs and deer-in-the-headlights demeanor did them both in.

Morimoto, in contrast, has spent a lifetime in the cause. He graduated from the National Defense Academy, spent 14 years in the Air Self-Defense Force, served as director of national security policy at the Foreign Ministry, was an adviser to the Liberal Democratic Party on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan and other security issues, and in 2009 was briefly an aide to the defense minister. He has authored a dozen books on defense policy, taught international affairs at a Tokyo university and appeared frequently on television as a guest commentator on the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other defense issues.

“He is a prominent analyst and leading commentator. He has a lot of friends in the United States and Japan. He has great credibility. But he is not a member (of any political party) so he doesn’t have a lot of friends there. Until yesterday he could just go on television and say what needs to be done, but now he has to go talk to the governor (of Okinawa), he has to bow to people, he has to explain. It’s not so easy, so whether he can really accomplish anything is the question,” says Masashi Nishihara, former head of the defense academy and now president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, a Tokyo think tank.

Morimoto is considered conservative on defense issues, and is in favor of easing the prohibition against “collective defense.” Currently, Japanese forces would not be permitted to come to the aid of friendly or allied forces unless they themselves were attacked, as well.

But Morimoto is by no means a strident nationalist. He has stopped short of urging a change in Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces the use of force — a hot-button issue.

At a Diet hearing in March, he urged a diplomatic resolution to the dispute over the Senkaku Islands dispute – a tiny group of islets administered by Japan by claimed by China – but said Japan should strengthen its defenses to prevent the islands from being seized by force.

He is also a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance and of keeping Marines on Okinawa, despite the noise, crime and danger that have sparked decades of protest.

“The Marine Corps’ adaptability, flexibility for counterattack and strike capability work as a deterrent,” Morimoto said in a 2004 interview.