TOKYO — A defense chief ensnared in a cover-up scandal has offered a belated resignation. Yet anger continues to smolder among ruling party lawmakers who believe Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exacerbated the problem by standing by her until the very end.
Abe had been extremely protective of his defense minister, Tomomi Inada, whose reputation among fellow lawmakers was less than stellar. When she gave shaky testimony in the Diet, he would volunteer to speak himself to take the heat off. But even Abe gradually stopped sticking up for Inada after she incurred the wrath of voters by asking them to support a candidate in the Tokyo assembly race “on behalf of the Defense Ministry [and] the SDF.”
Inada is seen as a reason for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s shellacking in the Tokyo election. The cabinet’s approval rating has also slipped, sinking under 40% this month.
“I can’t believe she has the nerve to not resign under these circumstances,” an official from Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, had said.
Abe had initially thought that he could silence Inada’s critics by removing her in a cabinet reshuffle planned for Aug. 3, according to a source close to him. But with the Diet now expected to hold a recess meeting to discuss the Self-Defense Forces activity logs at the center of the controversy, many in the prime minister’s office began questioning whether Inada could withstand the scrutiny. Inada is suspected of lying about the activity record kept by SDF troops on a South Sudan peacekeeping mission. She herself had planned to attend the session and was still preparing statements as of Thursday morning, according to a source.
But the mood shifted completely later that day, when Renho, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, decided to step down, presumably to take responsibility for its dismal showing in the Tokyo election. Many thought that it would be bad form to have Inada stay even after Renho resigned, effectively leaving the minister no choice but to step down.
Inada met with Abe for about 30 minutes that afternoon to discuss the findings of an investigation into the SDF logs, as well as her failure to get a handle on the situation.
Some in the prime minister’s office are relieved by Inada’s decision, which they consider less risky than her attending a Diet session and rehashing the scandal.
But any attempts to put the issue to rest without her present at the meeting will likely inflame the political opposition. The Democrats, who could regain momentum under a new leader, are unlikely to dial down their attacks on the Abe government, and Abe will continue to face a backlash over the SDF logs.
The prime minister’s decision to stand by Inada despite her many troubles has touched a nerve even inside the ruling coalition. Whether Abe can turn the page as planned with the August cabinet reshuffle is unclear.