People’s trust in the operation of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) would be in question if it had intentionally concealed information concerning SDF troops deployed as peacekeepers in South Sudan. Media reports alleged that the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) kept the daily activity logs of the Japanese peacekeepers — which the ministry insisted had been thrown away — and that the GSDF once tried to disclose the fact but was stopped by an official at the SDF Joint Staff. If Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada had not been informed of the whole process, that would constitute a breach of civilian control of the SDF. The Abe administration must take the issue seriously and get to the bottom of the problem.

In October, a journalist requested that the Defense Ministry disclose the activity logs of the GSDF peacekeepers in South Sudan, where conflict between government and rebel forces has been intensifying since large-scale fighting that killed more than 270 people in the capital of Juba last July. In early December, the ministry turned down the request saying that the logs had already been destroyed by the GSDF. But in a probe ordered by Inada and demanded by a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker, the ministry found out later in the month that copies of the logs had been stored in the computer system of the SDF Joint Staff.

However, it wasn’t until about a month later that Inada was informed of the fact — the Defense Ministry explained that it took time to determine which parts of the logs merits disclosure — and parts of the logs were disclosed in February. Inada continued to explain in the Diet that the GSDF itself was unable to find the logs. But it later turned out that the logs were in the possession of the GSDF after all. That was reported to GSDF Chief of Staff Toshiya Okabe, and the GSDF initially considered disclosing the fact but was allegedly thwarted by a senior civilian bureaucrat on the SDF Joint Staff. If true, this would constitute an organized attempt to hide the information. If it had transpired without Inada’s knowledge, her command of the SDF and the Defense Ministry would be in doubt.

The daily activity logs in question detailed the security conditions confronting the GSDF peacekeepers in South Sudan as large-scale conflict intensified there last summer. Japan’s law on participation in the U.N.-led peacekeeping operations prohibits the SDF troops from taking part in such a mission unless a ceasefire is maintained by warring parties. The worsening situation in South Sudan — the only country where Japanese peacekeepers are deployed — was raising doubts about the legitimacy of continued GSDF operation in the country.

Still, the Abe administration kept the GSDF peacekeepers deployed, and in December gave the troops new tasks of coming to the rescue of U.N. officials and other civilians under attack as well as defending their own camps together with other troops — a job that was added to the mission of SDF peacekeepers by the administration’s security legislation that significantly expanded the scope of SDF’s overseas activities.

The government kept saying that the security situation in areas where the SDF peacekeepers are deployed was relatively stable. The disclosed parts of the logs told of the fierce “fighting” taking place there. The government later insisted that the “armed clashes” taking place in the country do not constitute “fighting” in its legal definition pertinent to the peacekeepers law because the rebel forces lack the organization and command chain to qualify as “quasi-state” actor fighting government troops. It would be a serious problem if the Defense Ministry had sought to withhold the peacekeepers’ logs in order to hide information that could challenge the government’s judgment on keeping the peacekeepers deployed.

The Abe administration said earlier this month that it would withdraw the GSDF peacekeepers from South Sudan at the end of May. It explained that the troops are being withdrawn because they will be able to wrap up the engineering mission such as road construction in which they have been engaged since 2012 — not because of the deteriorating security situation there. The government’s explanation will be hard to swallow if the Defense Ministry fiasco represents its unwillingness to disclose relevant information about SDF activities — which is vital to the formation of public trust in the forces’ operation. The administration needs to clarify what happened in the SDF and the Defense Ministry over the peacekeepers’ logs.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Olivia Yang