The top officer of the Self-Defense Forces recently made a disturbingly thoughtless comment when he welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal to amend Article 9 of the Constitution.
“If I may speak as one member of the SDF, I would be very grateful if a provision for the SDF’s legal status is clearly written in the Constitution,” said Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff of the Joint Staff.
Kawano made the remark when he was asked about Abe’s proposal to add a paragraph for establishing the SDF’s legal status to Article 9 of the Constitution.
Kawano also said it was not appropriate for him to discuss the constitutional amendment proposal, which he described as a “highly political issue,” in an official capacity as chief of staff of the Joint Staff.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saw no problem in Kawano’s comment, pointing out that it was made only as his personal view.
But we cannot agree with this justification.
The SDF Law restricts political activities of SDF members. As examples of political activities SDF personnel should not participate in, an enforcement ordinance for the law cites the acts of supporting or opposing specific policies with the intention of influencing the direction of politics.
In taking the oath of enlistment, all SDF personnel vow to comply with the Constitution and refrain from engaging in political activities.
Kawano probably thought that the constitutional amendment proposed by Abe, if it is actually made, would enable SDF personnel to carry out their duties with greater pride.
But he crossed a line by publicly expressing his thoughts about the proposal.
Even if Kawano can be seen as just one member of the SDF, it goes without saying that he still should observe the law and regulations.
There has been a case in which a government employee was accused of violating the National Public Service Law by just putting leaflets of a specific political party in mailboxes on holidays.
Kawano’s remark is all the more unacceptable because he has the title of chief of staff of the Joint Staff, the highest-ranking officer who commands the more than 200,000 SDF troops.
Abe’s constitutional amendment proposal is a highly political topic that has provoked complicated reactions from lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition camps as well as the public.
Kawano deserves to be criticized for violating the principle of political neutrality he is required to observe if he makes any comment that can be interpreted as supporting this controversial proposal.
There is no telling the outcomes of public debate over related questions, such as how Article 9 should be amended and how to treat Japan’s right to collective self-defense.
The chief of the SDF, who is responsible for the safety of SDF personnel, should be accused of imprudence if he makes remarks that could be seen as intended to promote Abe’s political agenda while the future of the SDF remains unclear.
The Abe administration has been seeking to allow SDF officers to play more active roles in policymaking.
Kawano frequently meets with the prime minister to advise him on military issues. If he, under such circumstances, has become oblivious to the need to keep an appropriate distance from politics, that raises some serious questions concerning civilian control.
Kawano was also criticized after he told a news conference that he had effectively instructed Ground SDF troops deployed to South Sudan to take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations to not use the term “sento” (fighting) in writing daily reports about their activities.
The SDF has won broad public support over the years through its disaster aid and other activities.
Kawano’s careless remarks could undermine the public trust in the SDF that its members have earned through many years of efforts.