Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka is coming under heavy attack from all sides, with his critics increasingly accusing the bumbling minister of being stuck at the mercy of bureaucrats and his wife, Makiko.
Opposition parties say they are preparing to launch a stinging attack on Tanaka over his failure to quickly lower the curtain on the questionable actions by the Okinawa Defense Bureau chief. The situation is so bad for the defense chief that even a high-ranking member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan said the opposition onslaught against Tanaka will be “like taking candy from a baby."
Defense Ministry officials also criticized Tanaka for not following through on his initial intention to fire Ro Manabe, the Okinawa Defense Bureau director-general who gave speeches to bureau employees about the upcoming Ginowan mayoral election.
Ginowan is the current host of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture. The Japan-U.S. plan to relocate the air station to Nago in the prefecture has been met with fierce opposition.
On the morning of Feb. 3, Tanaka told high-ranking Defense Ministry officials: "I will replace Director-General Manabe. Decide on his successor."
However, later on Feb. 3, Manabe appeared as an unsworn witness before the Lower House Budget Committee. During questioning from lawmakers, Manabe was never recognized as having violated the Public Offices Election Law, which prohibits civil servants from using their positions to conduct campaign activities.
Later in the day, Tanaka met with his parliamentary senior vice minister and parliamentary vice ministers to discuss what to do about Manabe.
Shu Watanabe, the senior vice minister, said Manabe's dismissal should be put off because other facts may emerge in further investigations. The two vice ministers concurred, leaving Tanaka as the odd man out.
Later, Tanaka indicated to reporters a decision on Manabe’s fate would be made after the Feb. 12 Ginowan mayoral election. Official campaigning starts on Feb. 5.
Tanaka had long told close associates that he wanted to replace Manabe so that the incident would not influence the election. However, because of his lack of knowledge in defense matters, Tanaka was not on the same wavelength as the high-ranking Defense Ministry officials.
According to sources, Tanaka suggested in meetings that bureaucrats respond in his place during Diet questioning. The Cabinet minister had apparently forgotten that the DPJ instituted rules prohibiting civil servants from answering in place of lawmakers.
Some senior Defense Ministry officials said Tanaka's wife, Makiko, was behind the initial urgency to dismiss Manabe. When she served as foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka was often on bad terms with ministry officials.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, appearing more concerned about the effects on the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, repeatedly contacted Tanaka to ensure that he did not take hasty action regarding Manabe.
Fujimura is likely aware that simply replacing the Okinawa Defense Bureau chief may not end the controversy. Last November, after reports surfaced about inappropriate comments attributed to Manabe's predecessor, the director-general was immediately replaced.
But the opposition parties turned their criticism toward then Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, eventually passing a censure motion against him in the Upper House. Ichikawa, who, like Tanaka, was widely criticized for his lack of knowledge of defense matters, was replaced in January when Noda shuffled his Cabinet.
Another factor working against a quick dismissal of Manabe was the finding by the Defense Ministry that it was common practice for high-ranking officials of the Okinawa Defense Bureau to urge workers to vote in local governments when the Liberal Democratic Party was in charge of government.
Perhaps because of that history, the opposition parties did not go after Manabe very aggressively in questioning at the Budget Committee.
Although an official with the Prime Minister's Official Residence said no decision had yet been made on whether to replace Manabe, a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said the lack of action showed, "The minister is powerless."
Having failed to dismiss Manabe, Tanaka now finds himself on the firing line. He has already been criticized by the opposition parties for leaving an Upper House Budget Committee on Jan. 31 to have coffee.
Ordinarily, the only Cabinet minister allowed to leave such a committee session is the chief Cabinet secretary, who has to hold two daily news conferences.
On Feb. 3, Gen Nakatani, a former LDP defense chief, turned his attention in questioning at the Lower House Budget Committee toward Tanaka rather than Manabe.
With the LDP and New Komeito sticking to a strategy of pressuring the Noda administration into dissolving the Lower House and holding a snap election, having Tanaka as defense minister gives them ammunition to attack the government.
Opposition party officials stopped short of saying they would immediately submit a censure motion against Tanaka. But they did say they were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to launch a full-scale assault on Tanaka when the timing is right.
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