The new Ministry of Defense and the difference between a “Commissioner” and “Minister” in Japanese politics

The Japanese government’s move to make the Japan Defense Agency into the “Ministry of Defense” can be a little confusing. The bills were passed with almost unanimous support in the lower house, with main opposition party DPJ voting with the ruling coalition, and will likely be enacted into law by the end of the Diet session this year. But what is it that would change, exactly? More specifically, what would the role of a Minister of Defense be, exactly? I decided to very casually look into it, and here is a blockquote-filled summary of what I found out:

The editorial page at Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, known for a left-of-center stance, had this to say:

Postwar Japan reflected on its history of aggression and colonial rule and vowed never to repeat the mistake of allowing the military to distort politics as it did before World War II.

That is why Japan did not position the armed forces it acquired again after the war as a military force but instead organized the SDF. The decision was also effective in announcing that the SDF is different from a regular military force to audiences both at home and abroad.

The SDF was also a symbol of a new Japan, which does not attach great importance to military affairs. The decision to establish the “Defense Agency” instead of a ministry of national defense or defense ministry carries the same message.

The government and ruling parties say that even if the agency becomes a ministry, there would be no substantial change. The change would boost the pride of SDF members. Other countries have ministries that oversee defense affairs. Just because the name is changed, it doesn’t mean the revival of prewar militarism, they say. That may be true.

But what is being tested is our determination and the will of postwar Japan not to again become a militaristic nation. It is not a question of something getting old and outdated.

To sum up, Asahi warns of the dangers posed by the morale-boosting effects that upgrading the SDA to the SDM would pose. If it’s about “pride” then why not can’t the SDF be happy with bold appearances by a top hat-wearing Shinzo Abe such as was seen last month? This explanation is just too vague. Its news report on the bill’s passage of the lower house has more detail:

Once the bills become law, a Defense Ministry could emerge as soon as early January. The defense minister in charge of the new organization would be able to directly submit legislation to the Diet and to call for Cabinet meetings to approve the issuance of orders, such as those for maritime patrol duties.

Currently, the prime minister has formal authority over such procedural matters.

Under revisions of the SDF Law, emergency overseas disaster relief assistance, U.N.-backed peacekeeping operations, and activities under legislation outlining support work for the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq will be upgraded to the SDF’s primary duty status.

The legislation also calls for the dismantling of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency and the merger of its functions into the Defense Ministry by the end of fiscal 2007.

In addition, a “defense inspection headquarters” will be established to check for irregularities within the ministry. The head inspector would be appointed from outside the ministry.

The Yomiuri, who has a similarly convenient English-language editorial section, had even less to say about what the change actually meant apart from that ministry status for the SDF is “natural” given today’s dangerous state of affairs:

With the upgrading, the new ministry and the SDF will have greater responsibilities. However, there are concerns that a recent spate of incidents involving the SDF will cast doubt on the ability to fulfill such responsibilities.

How about the Western media? Can they explain this important policy change for Japan? On November 16, Britain’s Financial Times, which has some of the best and most regular Japan coverage around, recently printed a feature noting that “Japan and Germany appear finally to be shedding an abiding legacy of [WW2]” and as such “both are moving towards developing military forces that reflect their global economic clout.” However, specific mention of the pending bill was nowhere to be found. Instead, the article was rife with innuendo suggesting that Japan is seriously considering going nuclear. The article inspired a letter to the editor from lower house member Hiroshige Seko, PM Abe’s special advisor on public relations emphasizing that Japan is not in fact seeking nuclear weapons.

The Japan Times has a rather good explanation of what the ministry upgrade will mean as well as the changes the new law will bring in an editorial:

At present, the Defense Agency is an external part of the Cabinet Office, whose head is the prime minister. The Defense Agency chief first must consult with, and present a request to, the prime minister if he or she wants a Cabinet meeting to consider defense-related legislation, SDF personnel affairs or SDF mobilization in the event of an attack on Japan. The defense chief also needs to go through a similar procedure with the prime minister before he or she asks the Finance Ministry for funding. If the Defense Agency becomes the Defense Ministry, the defense minister will be freed from these restrictions.

Those aren’t bad explanations. They fill in the necessary details and cover the emotional and symbolic issues involved. And I’m sure there is comprehensive coverage available in the major Japanese-language newspapers and magazines. Still, the most satisfying explanation I’ve come across of this new law is from the blog of Katsuhiko Shirakawa, an ex-Minister of Home Affairs and six-term LDP Dietman who left the LDP and eventually the Diet when he found himself on the losing side of the “Kato Insurgency,” an unsuccessful move to unseat the unpopular then-PM Yoshiro Mori in 2000. Here’s an excerpt of a recent blog post:

Just what is the difference between the titles “Minister” and “Commissioner”? Specifics are stipulated in detail in the Cabinet Law and the establishment laws for the various ministries and agencies. I won’t go into those here. What I will do is tell you what I actually experienced and let you know the differences in a way that’s easy to understand. Both the electorate and politicians react with glee when “Mr. so-and-so was appointed minister” whether it’s as a minister or commissioner. However, when the people who have become ministers get together, the significance of “Minister of X” and “Commissioner of Agency X” is a little different. The ministers, for whatever reason, have more vigor. For example, I was called the Minister of Home Affairs Kazuhiko Shirakawa, but Jitsuo Inagaki, who sat next to me, was just called National Land Agency Commissioner Jitsuo Inagaki or just Minister Inagaki.* He was never called Minister of State, National Land Agency Commissioner Inagaki. Of course, at events such as conventions I think he was introduced as “Minister of State National Land Agency Commissioner Jitsuo Inagaki.” This may be somewhat disappointing to a person who wants to be called “minister” as much as possible. However, there may not be that many gentlemen who have a deep understanding of the differences between ministers and agency commissioners.

[*Inagaki was actually Minister of State for Hokkaido and Okinawa Development. He’s making a good point despite the minor error, however.]

One incident that made me consider this issue was when I made a statement on the issue of hiring foreigners as local public employees. Up to then, the opinion of the Ministry of Home Affairs was “Local public employees, who are involved in regular administration, must not be hired if they do not have Japanese citizenship.” This is the so-called “citizenship clause.” Soon after taking office [as Minister of Home Affairs], I made the following statement on a TV program on which I was a guest: “From now on, I think this is an issue on which each municipality should decide based on their judgment.” What surprised me was the director-general of the Local Public Personnel Department. He came to see me almost immediately. One week before I took office as Home Affairs Minister, a private advisory body to the Home Affairs Minister had just repeated the original opinion of the ministry: “As an obvious legal principle, Japanese citizenship is required for those to be hired as municipal civil servants for regular administrative work.” I replied, “If it is such a critical issue, why didn’t you mention it in the briefing you gave me right after I took office? I can’t take back what I said on television, nor do I have any intention to.”

The director-general’s head must have been spinning. Debate heated up at the LDP’s relevant policy division as well. I also got quite a few phone calls from right-wingers etc calling me a traitor and threatening to kill me. However, I stuck to my principles. It wasn’t that I made the statement lightheartedly because no one told me not to in the briefing. I made the statement purposefully with a full knowledge of the citizenship clause. That is because I had been studying this issue for a long time through my activities with the Japan-Korea Legislative Council. The Home Affairs Ministry had jurisdiction over the public employee system. The ministry’s opinion was a serious issue to regional municipalities. Municipalities that violated the policy faced penalties in redistribution of national tax revenues. However, since the Home Affairs Minister made the statement that “The Home Affairs Ministry will not make any particular regulations on this issue. We will leave it up to each municipality’s judgment,” the original opinion was thereby changed.

My statement as the Home Affairs Minister in charge of the local public employee system was absolute. Even if, for the sake of argument, the prime minister made a different statement from the Home Affairs Minister, it has no meaning legally since the prime minister does not have jurisdiction over the local public employee system. Therefore, if Prime Minister Hashimoto, who appointed me, decided that this statement would not do, he would have no choice but to first to demand a correction from me, then dismiss me if even after that I refuse to change my statement, then either correct my statement after appointing himself Minister of Home Affairs, or appoint a Home Affairs Minister with the same opinion as he and have him/her correct my statement. I felt that if it came to that I would deal with it. It was right after I took office, but I was prepared to stake my job on it. However, PM Hashimoto never mentioned this issue. Accordingly, my statement is still alive with regard to this issue.

As you can see, the minister of a ministry has unlimited power over the items under his/her jurisdiction. The Japan Defense Agency is an independent agency of the cabinet. The prime minister has authority over items under the cabinet’s jurisdiction. It is stipulated that “the director of the Self Defense Agency shall be the Defense Agency Commissioner, and shall be appointed as a minister of state,” but the residence ultimate authority with regard to self defense with the prime minister does not change. Therefore, submission of bills and budget requests must be made via the prime minister. If it it made into a ministry, these restrictions will be lifted, but more than that, the Minister of Self Defense will have all powers over the items under the Ministry of Defense’s jurisdiction, except those excluded by law. The debate is over whether this is actually a good thing.

5 thoughts on “The new Ministry of Defense and the difference between a “Commissioner” and “Minister” in Japanese politics”

  1. One of the other advantages for the Defense bureaucracy is that it gains a greater degree of independence from other Ministries as a Ministry itself. It has already been pointed out that the Defense Agency comes under the rubric of the PMs office, but under the old system the agency was also largely staffed by people seconded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finance and the like who would return to those Ministries once their time with the Agency was up. That meant that the old Agency was full of bureaucrats whose loyalties lay with their ‘home’ Ministries and who from time to time would act to counter the interests of ‘rival’ ministries within the Agency. I’ve heard that it didn’t make for a particularly pleasant or efficient working environment.

  2. Just speculation here, but would any of that change with the ministry power-up? All the staff will simply be kept over from their original posts, I assume. They will retain their ties to the old ministries at least for the time being.

  3. The good thing is now that the decision has made, and we don’t have to waste anymore time and energy to discuss whether to do or not to do.
    U.S-Japan security treaty,Kimigayo,hinomaru,female emperor,and now defence agency.
    I was pretty interested with Shirakawa’s blog.and that reminded me of the names
    of old LDP veterans such as Gotohda,Nonaka and Kamei.They were all against
    neither SDF nor Defence agency to have any kind of independence from the web of
    Ministry of Home affairs.Could this be the legacy of the century old rivarly between Naimusyo VS Military?

  4. “would any of that change with the ministry power-up?”

    Presumably the new organisation would have their own staff, not seconded from other Ministries

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