Editorial: Scandals raise question of whether Japanese public can trust defense forces

Editorial: Scandals raise question of whether Japanese public can trust defense forces

Defense Minister Minoru Kihara answers questions about misconduct by Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel in connection with the mishandling of state secrets at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, July 9, 2024. (Mainichi/Mimi Niimiya)

Mishandling of classified national security information continues to occur within Japan’s Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Numerous cases have been revealed in which officers and personnel not qualified to have access to specially protected state secrets had access to this information within the land, sea and air self-defense forces, as well as in the Joint Staff Office.

There have also been a series of inappropriate cases of misuse of specially designated secrets in both the Maritime Self-Defense Forces and the Land Self-Defense Forces since last year, prompting the Defense Ministry to launch an investigation. On a Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer, unqualified personnel were allowed into the combat information center and used information tracking foreign ships.

Admiral Ryo Sakai, the MSDF chief of staff, is reportedly preparing to resign to take responsibility for the incidents. The Defense Ministry plans to punish the perpetrators and submit a report to the Specially Designated Secrets Supervision and Review Board in the Diet, which oversees the operation of secrets.

Specially designated secrets are highly sensitive information related to defense and other areas that the government chooses to use. Only those who have passed a “suitability assessment,” including a criminal record and drinking habits, are allowed access to this information. If the violations were habitual, one can only conclude that there was a lack of legal awareness. This is a serious national security problem.

It is also necessary to assess whether there were adequate operational systems for accessing secrets. The Ministry of Defence employs around 120,000 personnel qualified to handle special secrets. Due to staff changes and the need to renew every five years, procedures must be followed. If there is a lack of personnel to handle these tasks, this must be resolved.

The Supervisory and Audit Board must thoroughly investigate why these illegal actions occurred.

In December 2022, an MSDF captain was fired for revealing designated secrets to a retired officer. Such lax information management undermines trust, especially as the SDF and the U.S. military deepen their cooperation.

There have been concerns that the government can arbitrarily designate special state secrets. The fact that the public does not know what is considered a secret is also a problem. In this case, it is necessary to examine whether the scope of the designation was appropriate.

Legislation has been passed to extend the protection of classified information to the area of ​​economic security, and the number of individuals in the private sector undergoing suitability assessments is likely to increase. If violations continue to occur at the front line of defense, the credibility of the system could be undermined.

The Ministry of National Defense is grappling with a series of scandals. Incidents such as the entertainment of MSDF employees by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and the fraudulent receipt of submarine service allowances have also been exposed. A thorough investigation into the causes is necessary to regain public trust.