Regional tensions test Japan's new defense minister on first day

TOKYO (Reuters) - Tomomi Inada will have precious little time to settle into her new job as Japan’s defense minister, as events on her first day in the office underlined.

Japan's new defense minister Tomomi Inada talks to reporters at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Hours before the hawkish lawyer was appointed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet in a limited reshuffle, a North Korean missile landed in or near Japanese-controlled waters for the first time.

The show of force, part of Pyongyang’s increasingly provocative arms testing, is a reminder of how strained relations between countries in northeast Asia have become, from North Korea’s nuclear program to China’s assertiveness in the disputed waters of the South and East China Seas.

Into the mix steps Inada, a conservative ally of Abe whose support for his goal of revising Japan’s post-war, pacifist constitution risks exacerbating tensions.

The 57-year-old, previously policy chief for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, will be watched closely in Beijing and Seoul, where Japan’s legacy of military aggression before and during World War Two remains an open wound.

Inada has been a regular visitor to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead, an act that infuriates both countries because they see the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism for which they believe it has never fully atoned.

When asked by reporters on Wednesday whether she would visit the shrine again ahead of the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945, Inada declined to comment.

“It’s a matter of conscience and I don’t think I should comment on whether I will go or not,” she said.

Political analysts expect Inada to put pragmatism first in her new role.

“She is the kind of person who regularly listens to a wide range of people. I believe she will employ a practical policy,” said Bonji Ohara, a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think-tank.

“Personnel change presents a good opportunity (to improve ties). It gives China an opportunity to say what has happened has happened under (outgoing defense) minister (Gen) Nakatani, not minister Inada, and to shift its stance.”


Japan, and Inada, may in turn reach out to China and others as they seek to neutralize the threat to security posed by North Korea.

Japan has already said it is upgrading its missile defenses in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to counter more advanced North Korean weapons, part of increased military spending in the region that reflects worsening ties.

China is North Korea’s main ally, although Beijing disapproves of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Abe is expected to travel to China in September for a Group of 20 summit, where he wants to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We will steadily strengthen ties with neighboring countries such as China and South Korea, and proceed with talks with Russia for a peace treaty,” Abe told a news conference announcing his new cabinet.

Japan and Russia never signed a peace treaty after World War Two because of a territorial dispute, while Tokyo and Beijing both claim jurisdiction over islands in the East China Sea.

In fact, Inada was one of three Japanese lawmakers who were reportedly denied entry into South Korea in 2011 because they planned to visit islands which both countries say are theirs.

Also in her in-tray is the row over who owns what in the South China Sea, where Japan has no direct claim but through which trillions of dollars in trade pass annually, much of it to and from Japanese ports.

Rather than confront China directly by sailing warships past its man-made island bases in the sea, Japan is providing equipment and training to the Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, which are most opposed to China’s territorial ambitions.

Beijing’s most powerful adversary in Asia is the United States, with its Seventh Fleet operating from bases in Japan and South Korea.

Japan’s annual defense review, published on Tuesday, warned of “unintended consequences” if China disregarded international rules, after an arbitration court in The Hague invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims to most of the sea.

China rejected the ruling and refused to participate in the case.

Additional reporting by Elaine Lies; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Alex Richardson