TOKYO — The June 4 appointment of Satoshi Morimoto as Japan’s defense minister is viewed as part of a broader effort to remove unpopular ministers as the government faces tough financial decisions.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appointed Morimoto, a 71-year old academic, to replace the discredited and gaffe-prone Naoki Tanaka, as part of a second major overhaul of the Democratic Party of Japan’s Cabinet.
Morimoto, a professor at Japan’s conservative-leaning Takushoku University, joined the then-Defense Agency in 1965, serving in the Air Self-Defense Force, before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1979, where he became director of the national security policy division. While in the Foreign Ministry, he received a master’s degree from the Fletcher School at Tufts University in 1980.
As Japan’s first non-parliamentarian defense chief since World War II, he is a well-known and respected foreign policy and security expert with firsthand experience in both fields, according to local media and experts.
Morimoto’s appointment comes as a stark contrast to his predecessor, who ran into storms of criticism following a series of embarrassing incidents, not least his inability during parliamentary debates to answer basic questions about constitutional defense and deployment issues.
Tanaka also was criticized for an untimely delay in relaying critical information to Japanese authorities and the public relating to the launch and status of an abortive April 13 satellite launch by North Korea, which was widely seen as a ballistic missile test.
“Tanaka was exceptionally incompetent,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, based here.
“He confused the five principles of dispatching Japan’s Self Defense Forces overseas with the Three Principles on Arms Exports, he made politically unwise remarks on the Futenma relocation issue, and he failed to answer accurately to the question of who was protecting SDF [Self Defense Forces] members operating in South Sudan.
“The late information on the North Korean missile test wasn’t entirely his fault,” Michishita said. “But he could have done a much better job in terms of how to convey early warning information much more effectively to the people. In sum, he was much of a buffoon. He didn’t get anything right.”
By contrast, Michishita said that Morimoto, an author of a series of books about the Japan-U.S. alliance, is known as a staunch supporter of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and appears to be a seasoned professional. He also has close ties with the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party following a stint as a former special adviser to the defense minister in 2009,
“Morimoto is an experienced specialist on defense issues,” Michishita said. “His appointment as defense minister was surprising only because it was the first time that this [appointing a policy expert who is not a career politician] happened in Japan.”
The replacement is part of a move by the Noda administration to dump unpopular ministers in an attempt to gain support for a raft of unpopular policies, including a controversial hike in the sales tax, as part of the Japanese government’s efforts to tackle the nation’s spiraling debt. Morimoto’s two recent predecessors, Tanaka and Yasuo Ichikawa, were professional lawmakers, and both came under heavy attack for repeated gaffes in defense issues.
Looking ahead, Morimoto is seen as qualified in terms of policy knowledge, but potentially lacking in political experience, Michishita said.
“We will keep our eyes on several things, including: what will be his policy focus, Futenma, China, North Korea, or organizational reform; whether he will try to make a real difference in Japan’s defense policy; whether his role as a good analyst will make him a good minister; and whether he will be able to get along with his fellow politicians and Defense Ministry officials,” Michishita said.