TOKYO — Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada on Tuesday did not confirm whether the Maritime Self-Defense Force engaged in its first-ever mission to protect a U.S. Navy ship as media reported last week, saying only that “a joint drill” took place.
“I know there have been various reports over the joint drill conducted between two MSDF destroyers and a U.S. military supply ship between May 1 and 3,” Inada told reporters. “On the implementation of the protection mission…I will refrain from answering, considering the possible impact on U.S. military activities and our relationship.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made similar comments at a parliamentary committee Monday.
Kyodo News and other media reported on May 1 that an MSDF vessel engaged for the first time in a protection mission of a U.S. ship. The helicopter carrier Izumo accompanied a supply vessel sailing in waters off Japan’s Pacific coast, enabled under security legislation that took effect last year.
MSDF destroyer Sazanami later joined the operation, which ended last Wednesday, according to government sources.
The move was apparently aimed at demonstrating the robust Japan-U.S. security alliance and deterring North Korea from conducting nuclear and missile tests amid high tensions in the region.
But concerns linger in Japan that operations between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military are becoming too intertwined under the new legislation and that Japan could eventually be drawn into a U.S.-led war.
The legislation has loosened the constraints imposed on SDF activities by Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution. SDF personnel, among other changes, are now allowed to guard vessels and weapons belonging to U.S. forces when the latter are engaged in activities beneficial to the defense of Japan.
Inada said at a parliamentary committee Tuesday that the protection mission could be treated as a so-called specially designated secret, subject to strict protection under Japan’s secrecy law. The law was put into force in 2014 amid criticism that the public’s right to know could be curtailed.