Japan’s Defense Ministry Has Been a Godawful Mess

Twelve ministers in eight years


In January 2007, the Japanese Defense Agency formally became a cabinet-level ministry.

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who served from 2006 to 2007 and was elected again two years ago, the change meant more than just switching the signs at the Ministry’s home in Ichigaya, Tokyo. It was a symbolic move signalling pacifist Japan’s willingness to assert itself militarily.

But despite the new ministry’s importance, it has suffered from a revolving door of defense chiefs—12 in eight years—and repeated scandals that have damaged its credibility and slowed its growth.

Abe and his party tasked the Ministry of Defense with formulating practical solutions to its policy aims—constitutional reinterpretation to allow Japan to defend its allies as well as itself; removing the ban on defense system exports; and alignment with its friendly neighbors to counterbalance China’s menacing rise.

To do this, the ministry needed strong political leadership, public trust and a long-term internal policy-planning capability that it hadn’t had during its time as an agency. And the ministry needed a good minister.

But since 2007, Japanese politics has experienced amazingly high turnover of unpopular prime ministers plus countless cabinet reshuffles. Adding to this, scandals have undermined the defense ministry and made its ministers a political liability.

Tokyo has burned through 12 ministers of defense in eight years. Compare that to the United States, which has had only three secretaries of defense in the same period—or to the United Kingdom, which has had six secretaries of state for defense.

Unlike the strong stable leadership in these countries, Ichigaya has welcomed many ministers who just couldn’t make their mark on the ministry.

The transition from agency to ministry created the cabinet-level position for minister of defense. The main job for the new leader was to represent the his ministry in political policy and budgetary debates, which used to be in the hands of the prime minister.

Like any good cabinet ministry, Defense required a savvy politician and a capable manager with an interest in their ministry’s field of work. It needed a leader who could communicate effectively between political representatives, the civil service and the public.

The new ministry begged for strong leadership and an experienced representative in the cabinet in order to carve out Defense’s place in Japanese policy-making. But what did it get?

A mixed bag of hot heads and incompetents, for the most part.

From left to right—U.S. Department of Defense, World Economic Forum and Sebastian Zwez photos. At top—the Defense Ministry. Hon-ya photo

Abe’s defense ministers

Fumio Kyuma was Shinzo Abe’s Director-General of the Defense Agency for three months before the agency became a ministry. He then continued in the job for six more months. He’d also served in the same position under Ryutaro Hashimoto from 1996 to 1998 and had held several security-related parliamentary committee chairs.

Despite expressing an interest in military issues, Kyuma failed miserably as a statesman. His frank criticism of Washington caused friction in the alliance, which had thrived under Abe’s predecessor Jun’ichiro Koizumi.

In one example, Kyuma called the justification for the war in Iraq a mistake, then back-tracked, saying that the U.S. should have been “more cautious.”

Kyuma’s loose lips sealed his political fate. “It could not be helped that an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and that countless numbers of people suffered great tragedy,” the Nagasaki-born politician admitted to the audience a Reitaku University symposium.

These comments might have been uncontroversial abroad, but to many Japanese ears, Kyuma sounded like an apologist for the devastating atomic bombings.

Kyuma failed at the most basic of political lessons—avoid giving your personal opinions while representing the government.

Abe’s second defense minister was someone who could be expected to understand that. The first woman to ever head the Defense Agency, Yuriko Koike was a shrewd politician and excellent communicator. As a former Arabic interpreter and TV news presenter, she knew how to appeal to the public and had a good grasp of international politics.

Koike was also more ideologically compatible with the prime minister than her predecessor was. She favored a more capable Japanese military and sympathized with Abe’s controversial historical views on comfort women, Japan’s war dead and history textbooks.

She probably could have been a stand-out defense minister … were it not for a major scandal within the ministry.

In May 2007, police investigations discovered that Maritime Self-Defense Force servicemembers had been sharing secrets with other sailors concerning the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.

During a routine immigration investigation of a naval officer’s Chinese wife, Japanese authorities found that her Kanagawa home computer contained sensitive data regarding the interceptor missile and the radar of the weapons system, a joint U.S.-Japan research project.

Further investigation turned up copies throughout the organization. Instructors at the 1st Service School in Hiroshima had shared the information in breach of the Japan-U.S. Secret Protection Law. It was not the first such information security scandal. Previous data leaks involving the file-sharing program Winny had rippled through military just a year before.

The whole scandal was an embarrassment to the operational security-minded ministry, but no administrators took responsibility for it. Koike tried to force Vice Minister Takemasa Moriya to resign. “I wanted to say who was responsible,” she commented while on a trip to New Delhi. “We can’t say its another person’s problem.”

Moriya had headed the Defense Agency for four years, later earning himself the nickname “Emperor of the Defense Ministry.” As a replacement for Moriya, Koike had lined up a National Police Agency official for the job. This clearly didn’t go down well within the ministry, whose staff would have preferred one of their own.

The Ministry of Defense was about to implement a series of reforms of its procurement and facilities management capabilities, and Koike wanted someone she could trust to head the agency. But Moriya wanted to choose his successor, presumably so he could still exercise some control over the ministry after retirement.

In the end, Abe’s chief cabinet secretary rejected Koike’s staffing change. Koike burned all her bridges in the public spat that ensued. She failed to act as the liaison between the cabinet and her ministry. Abe trusted her, but his right-hand man and the administrators under her did not.

Koike became a liability at the worst possible time. The government was battling in the Diet in order to extend the military’s logistical assistance to U.S. naval missions in the Indian Ocean.

Koike only spent 54 days on the job before Abe selected a new minister.

Abe’s third defense minister Masahiko Komura was a solid choice. He was a senior party official with a good track record as minister of foreign affairs and minister of justice. Komura was also ideologically compatible with the prime minister and commanded respect as a foreign policy expert at home and abroad.

But Komura barely had a chance to order any business cards before Abe’s leadership collapsed. Abe resigned in shame after the opposition took control of the upper house of the Diet in September 2007. New prime minister Yasuo Fukuda moved Komura from Ichigaya back to the foreign ministry—he was the shortest-term defense minister to this day.

From left to right—Ogiyoshisan, International Students’ Committee and U.S. Department of Defense photos.

Fighting for control

Prime Minister Fukuda appointed Shigeru Ishiba in Komura’s place. Ishiba was a natural choice for the position. He was a self-confessed military geek who had headed the Defense Agency for two years under Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi.

He was—and remains—powerful in the party and popular with the public.

Fukuda needed someone in Ichigaya who could get the Diet to pass the extension of the naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. Ishiba was a perfect fit for the job. Ishiba had headed the Defense Agency during the first extension of the mission back in October 2003, so he was thoroughly versed in the issues.

But the Diet had changed significantly since 2003.

Ishiba faced the most powerful political opposition since World War II. In November 2007, the upper house blocked the extension effort and allowed the law governing the refueling mission to expire.

Fukuda didn’t let that decision rest. With much pressure from the U.S. and brute-force by the ruling coalition, the cabinet pushed through a new law in January 2008 to revive the refueling operation.

Reform was another pressing issue for Ishiba. Throughout his tenure, he actively argued for changes to the internal structure of the ministry. Ishiba wanted to reduce the number of administrative bureaus in the ministry and bring military personnel into the civilian structure.

Bureaucrats, politicians and service-members all criticized his plans. The ministry risked losing people, money and maybe even civilian control over the Self-Defense Forces.

There were good reasons for reform. Another scandal dominated the news. Reports of defense industry giants wining and dining top ministry officials led to the arrest of the ousted Takemasa Moriya in November 2007.

Prosecutors raided the ministry for evidence that Moriya had taken bribes from defense contractors. At the same time, evidence also emerged of bill-padding in procurement contracts.

News of the corruption investigations destroyed public faith in the country’s newest ministry. And the bad news didn’t stop there. In February 2008, the Aegis destroyer Atago collided with a fishing vessel, killing two fishermen—a father and son.

Ishiba was under attack. Fukuda pledged his support and used the incident to further underline the need for reform. “If we don’t do something about this organization, this country will not become a proper nation,” Fukuda said.

Ishiba weathered the storm, but Fukuda was on the ropes.

In a cabinet reshuffle to drum up public support, the unpopular prime minister replaced Ishiba with Yoshimasa Hayashi, who had no experience as a cabinet minister. With a Liberal Democratic Party committee due to recommend a series of defense ministry reforms, Hayashi seemed like a poor choice for implementing these changes.

He was, however, well-versed in U.S.-Japan relations. Hayashi was a fluent English-speaker. He had studied at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and worked as a staffer in the U.S. Congress. This at least made him ideal for working with Japan’s American allies.

Regardless of what Hayashi could or couldn’t have done at Ichigaya, he was soon out of the job. After only one year as prime minster, in September 2008 Fukuda resigned … and took Hayashi with him.

Since long-standing Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi stepped down in September 2006, a new prime minister had emerged each September. Taro Aso was the third of these short-lived leaders.

Aso chose Yasukazu Hamada as his minister of defense. He was a safe pair of steady hands.

For 10 years, Hamada had circulated through defense and security positions in government and the party. Despite never serving as a cabinet minister, Hamada had a lot of experience in the defense ministry. This gave him the personal ties he needed to cement the ruling party’s plans for reform.

Hamada’s moderate views on Japan’s wartime history helped him weather yet another defense ministry scandal.

In October 2008, Hamada fired the chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Force, the outspoken nationalist Toshio Tamogami. While still serving in the military, Tamogami penned an essay denying that Japan was an aggressor during World War II.

This foray into political commentary didn’t stop there. He also encouraged similar views among his subordinates in the air force.

By dismissing and demoting Tamogami, Hamada insulated the government and ministry from further public criticism. It was just one example of his thoroughly uncontroversial leadership. But that is not to say that he had it easy.

While in office, Hamada faced the Taepodong-2 missile crisis in which North Korea threatened to bombard Japan and the military deployed Patriot missiles in the center of Tokyo. He worked hard to rebuild relations with the U.S. and South Korea.

He also implemented reforms in August 2009 that allowed the appointment of former SDF officers to the ministry in the form of special advisers to the minister of defense. He also created the Reform Promotion Office, which would guide further internal changes at the ministry.

While largely forgotten now, Hamada ran the Ministry of Defense more smoothly than any of his predecessors. The scandals that had plagued his five predecessors subsided.

From left to right—U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army Garrison Japan photos

A change of pace

In September 2009, as if by clockwork, the Liberal Democratic Party lost in the general election and a new Democratic Party prime minister assumed office.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama put much the previous party’s existing defense reform plans on ice. They not only didn’t fit with his party’s reinforcement of Japan’s “non-aggressive defense policy,” but the mandarins in the defense ministry were cool towards the Democratic Party, which had only seemed capable of saying “no” during its time in opposition.

Hatoyama put Toshimi Kitazawa in Ichigaya. He was to become Japan’s longest-appointed defense minister, heading the organization through Japan’s darkest moment since World War II—the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Kitazawa had no cabinet experience to speak of, but he had served as chairman of the Upper House Foreign Policy and Defense Committee during the inquiry into Tamogami’s actions in 2008. Despite this, he was an unknown quantity to ministry bureaucrats—and that made them uneasy.

One of his first tasks only worsened that unease. The new Democratic Party leadership ended the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. At his inaugural press conference, Kitazawa told reporters that international appreciation for Japan’s Indian Ocean mission was “limited.”

The Liberal Democratic Party had given the Defense Agency stable long-term policy for 44 years. Kitazawa’s remarks underlined just how different the Democratic Party planned to be.

The Democratic Party’s decision to end the Indian Ocean mission and its squabbles over the relocation Futenma air base in Okinawa put the U.S.-Japan relationship on the rocks during Hatoyama’s time in office. But Kitazawa seemed to navigate the troubled relationship well.

The defense minister proved himself capable even while the new prime minister floundered. He encouraged better ties to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He worked on creating the framework by which Japan could, for the first time, sell military equipment to its neighbors.

He also helped forge the “dynamic defense” concept that publicly recognized China as Japan’s primary threat.

Popular hawks such as Toshio Tamogami and the mustachioed officer-turned-politician Masahisa Sato frequently criticized Kitazawa’s willingness to improve relations with its neighbors—a key theme of the Hatoyama government.

They also attacked him when news broke that the ministry was tracking the attendance of serving military personnel at nationalist lectures by former officers—such as Tamogami and Sato themselves. The tracking was a direct response to the leaks and politicization in the Self-Defense Forces that had ruined public trust in the ministry.

The criticism waned after the 2011 tsunami. The Ministry of Defense finally demonstrated its worth to the Japanese people as it coordinated the disaster-relief mission. For the first time in Japan’s pacifistic postwar history, the public seemed to appreciate the Self-Defense Forces and their administrators.

Kitazawa proved himself a capable statesman. He worked well with the civil servants in Ichigaya. He sought their advice but also knew when to stand firm on party promises and his personal judgement. He enjoyed trust in the cabinet and his tenure furthered ministry reforms.

Kitazawa is the only defense minister to remain in office after a change of prime ministers—Hatoyama was out in June 2010 and Naoto Kan was in office at the time of the earthquake. The mishandling of the meltdown in Fukushima destroyed public support for Kan and in September 2011 he stepped down.

Yoshihiko Noda was Japan’s sixth prime minister in four years. Noda’s father had been a soldier in the elite 1st Airborne Brigade. Noda himself was one of the key figures in the formation of the 2011 “dynamic defense force” concept. But despite knowing better, Noda chose to use the minister of defense position to reinforce divisions in the Democratic Party.

Noda’s man for Ichigaya—its eighth minister—was Yasuo Ichikawa, a key supporter of the now-disgraced party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. The boss Ozawa’s toxic politics were increasingly unpopular with the public, but he still held considerable power within the Democratic Party.

This is what got Ichikawa his job. It clearly wasn’t because he actually wanted it.

I am an amateur regarding security issues, but this is what you call the real ‘civilian control,’” Ichikawa told assembled reporters and staff in his inauguration address.

The opposition party had a field day with that speech. Ichikawa’s predecessor Shigeru Ishiba quickly rebuked Ichikawa’s naivety. “That remark itself warrants his dismissal as defense minister.”

From day one, Ichikawa was under fire. But it wasn’t his remarks that finally cost him the job. That dubious honor went to Ichikawa’s Okinawa Defense Bureau chief Satoshi Tanaka, who likened announcing the submission of an environmental report on the Futenma relocation site to rape. “Would you say, ‘I will rape you,’ before you rape someone?” the chief asked.

Not content to merely wallow in the fallout from that gaffe, Ichikawa dug an even deeper hole for himself. He told reporters that he didn’t know much about the 1995 rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.

This came after the national press had highlighted the incident in order to show why Tanaka’s comments were so inappropriate. The defense minister came across as clueless and incompetent.

Ichikawa tried to weather the storm, and Noda’s desire to keep kingpin Ozawa on board meant supporting the beleaguered defense chief. “I hope he will shape up and fulfill his responsibilities,” Noda commented optimistically.

But the opposition-controlled upper house passed a censure motion against the defense minister. And at the start of 2012, Noda ditched Ichikawa.

Noda’s second choice for the defense position was a repeat of all his previous mistakes. Ichikawa’s replacement was Naoki Tanaka, husband of Makiko Tanaka, Koizumi’s outspoken foreign minister.

At first glance, he seemed like a better choice. He had served as parliamentary secretary in the foreign ministry and as head of the upper house’s foreign affairs and defense committee.

But it seemed like he had learned nothing during his time there.

On his appointment, a Yomiuri Shimbun article quoted an anonymous senior defense ministry official as responding with surprise. “He’s an amateur, isn’t he? Just like Mr. Ichikawa,” the official said.

In fact, Tanaka was actually much worse than Ichikawa.

His ignorance surprised former defense minister Yuriko Koike in the Diet, as she quizzed him on the defense topic of the day. “What is the strategic goal of ‘AirSea Battle?’” Koike asked.

“I don’t really understand it,” Tanaka responded.

This shocked Koike, who chastised Tanaka in front of the entire House of Representatives. “In the ABCs of defense, this is ‘A,’” she quipped.

Masahisa Sato also expressed his horror at the defense minister’s lack of knowledge. “Trying to debate policy with an unqualified individual like you just drives one out of one’s mind!” Sato declared.

The former colonel then stated what was on everyone’s minds. “Prime Minister Noda’s father was a soldier. In his heart, he must be thinking, ‘I would hate to have had my father working under this man.’”

Tanaka had no interest in the job, no talent for politics and didn’t know how to apply his experience as a civil servant. It’s shocking that Noda picked him—and more shocking that he kept him for five months.

But on his third attempt, the prime minister finally found someone who checked all the right boxes.

From left to right—U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Marine Corps photos

Back on track

Noda’s third and final defense minister was Satoshi Morimoto, a professor at Takushoku University, a private school in Tokyo. He was the first head in Ichigaya to not be an elected official.

But he was no outsider to the ministry.

Morimoto graduated from the Defense Academy’s Department of Science and Engineering. He then joined the Air Self-Defense Force. As a civilian, he later spent time in the Defense Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He had also completed a Masters at Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The national security specialist also served as special adviser to his predecessor Yasukazu Hamada.

He seemed like the ideal pick. Noda certainly seemed to think so. “[Morimoto is] the leading person on the discussion of the security of our nation,” Noda said. “He is a clear advocate of Japan exerting itself given the increasingly opaque regional security situation which is a challenge to peace and our security. I look forward to receiving excellent advice from him.”

Morimoto was politically connected, well-respected and understood his job. He was the right man for addressing Japan new security environment—rising China and the U.S. pivot to Asia.

But national politics never allowed us to see what Morimoto could really do in Ichigaya.

In December 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party crushed the ruling Democratic Party in a general election and Shinzo Abe became prime minister once more—with a renewed vigor and clearer ambitions. Abe chose Itsunori Onodera for the defense job.

Onodera was a good choice. He had a strong background in foreign affairs positions throughout his political career. Onodera was also on-board with Abe’s controversial plans for Japan’s security policy. Quiet and unobtrusive, Onodera was to be the invaluable bridge between the prime minister and the defense ministry.

Abe has been prime minister for nearly two years now, and in that time he has advanced Japan’s defense policy significantly. He pushed for a new constitutional interpretation on Japan’s right to collective self-defense and has forged ahead with building defense industry ties with friendly nations.

Onodera has been his front man in taking that message to the wider world.

Onodera has leveraged the ministry’s new policy-planning capabilities to great effect, and the Self-Defense Forces have benefited immensely from a renewed focus following their post-disaster publicity boost.

Today the Japanese military has a bigger budget, ever-increasing capabilities and a new National Security Strategy to guide it. Finally it seems like the ministry has developed the comprehensive long-term policy planning abilities it will need to thrive on the cabinet level.

With the hard fight over, on Sept. 3 Abe appointed Akinori Eto as Japan’s 12th defense minister. Eto has 10 years of experience in defense and security positions and served as parliamentary senior vice minister of Defense under Onodera, Ishiba and Kyuma.

Abe also gave Eto the portfolio of minister in charge of security legislation—a post that the now-powerful Ishiba turned down. In this new position, Eto will work to implement the legislative changes demanded by the reinterpretation of the constitutional position on collective self-defense.

Eto is as safe a pair of hands as can be found in the Diet. He has the experience at the ministry required to be an effective representative, but it is unclear yet whether he has the personality and charisma to solidify Abe’s plans.

So there you have it—12 ministers in fewer than eight years. The cause of this crisis of leadership is clearly the high turnover in prime ministers that Japan has suffered since Abe’s first period in office. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is on its 11th minister in the same period, after all.

But what sets the defense ministry apart is that it’s so new to the cabinet—and so important to recent government policy.

Thanks to the comparatively stable long-term leadership provided by Hamada, Kitazawa and Onodera, the Ministry of Defense is now in a much better place than when Shigeru Ishiba was minister. As the ministry continues to gain importance in policymaking, Noda’s shockingly terrible appointments will become harder to defend.

But the work is not finished in Ichigaya. As Eto’s enlarged scope of responsibility shows, there’s a hard fight ahead for the Abe cabinet.

After a decade of tumult, Japan finally has a prime minister who appreciates the importance of defense and a defense minister with the connections and experience to be a effective go-between.

But who knows how long that will last.

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