Rework arrangements needed to get relocation issue moving
The Defense Ministry is considering possible punishment of Ro Manabe, chief of the Okinawa Defense Bureau, who reportedly encouraged his subordinates to vote in the mayoral election in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, slated for Feb. 12.
There is no denying that Manabe's actions could have led to misunderstandings, even though they may not have been illegal.
Late last month, Manabe allegedly gave "lectures" on the mayoral election to 66 of his subordinates who either live in the city or have relatives there.
While explaining the standpoint of the central government and prospective candidates on the issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station, located in Ginowan, Manabe called their attention to the principle that public servants must be politically neutral.
At a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee to which he was summoned as an unsworn witness, Manabe emphasized that his lectures were rooted in the ministry's code of conduct for civil servants, which forbids recommending any particular candidate.
The upcoming mayoral election is likely to be a one-on-one fight between conservative and reformist candidates, with the outcome expected to affect the relocation issue.
Manabe, for his part, allegedly gave the lectures in the hope they would promote progress on the relocation issue, and meant to act within a scope that would not violate the Public Offices Election Law, which prohibits using the status of a public servant in an election campaign.
The Defense Ministry has found that Manabe did not express support for any specific person during the lectures and there were no illegal acts.
The ministry's judgment can be called appropriate, in principle.
Manabe allegedly gave similar lectures during recent elections, including one for the city assembly of Nago, also in the prefecture, held in 2010.
This time the issue is more controversial, as local people have become highly critical of the bureau due to the inappropriate comments by Manabe's predecessor, which cost him his post in late November. There has also been turmoil over the delivery of an environmental impact report compiled by the central government regarding relocation of the base, and gaffes made by former and current defense ministers Yasuo Ichikawa and Naoki Tanaka.
Tanaka initially intended to penalize Manabe by replacing him on Friday.
However, support for Manabe was expressed during the committee meeting and Tanaka's talks with senior ministry officials, leading him to postpone his decision on punishment.
Tanaka said that to aid the ministry's investigation of Manabe, he would have the bureau chief fulfill his responsibility to explain. This is a disgraceful stance, as Tanaka is trying to avoid his own responsibility for the confusion caused by the postponement of his decision.
Consider bureaucrats' morale
If the defense minister commits the similarly irresponsible act of forcing a bureaucrat to take the blame for the turmoil concerning a key policy issue, as the previous chief of the Okinawa Defense Bureau was forced to do, it will erode the morale of bureaucrats who are sincerely working on key policy issues. This would weaken the defense administration as a whole.
Also questionable is the response to this issue by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, which have criticized the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda over the relocation issue.
It was the then ruling coalition parties of the LDP and Komeito that decided to transfer the functions of the Futenma Air Station from Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago.
It is only reasonable for opposition parties to criticize any problematic elements of the government.
But if they end up making it difficult to realize the relocation to the Henoko district, it will destabilize bilateral relations between Japan and the United States, thus damaging national interests.
Both parties need to make judgments from a broader perspective, instead of merely pursuing their party interests.
The relocation issue is now at a crucial stage.
If the transfer to the Henoko district comes to a standstill, the Futenma Air Station will inevitably remain in the same location.
The Noda administration needs to rework its arrangements and do its utmost to realize the relocation.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 5, 2012)