Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party demanded Wednesday that Defense Minister Tomomi Inada resign over a remark it says amounts to making political use of the Self-Defense Forces to attract support for a candidate in the upcoming Tokyo metropolitan assembly election.
“Her comment, which conflicts with the SDF law, was out of line and she should resign immediately,” Democratic Party leader Renho told reporters in Tokyo. “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bears responsibility for having appointed her.”
Inada had asked voters to back a candidate of her Liberal Democratic Party in a stump speech on Tuesday, saying the request came from “the Defense Ministry, the SDF, the defense minister and the LDP.” Hours later, she told reporters she will “withdraw” the comment because it could be “misunderstood.”
The minister has said she does not intend to resign over the remark.
Under the law governing the country’s defense apparatus, the SDF is meant to remain politically neutral and its personnel are restricted in their ability to engage in political activities.
The LDP is hoping to remain the largest party in the metropolitan assembly when Tokyo voters go to the polls this Sunday, but faces an uphill battle against a new party formed by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. The ruling party is also under fire over recent favoritism allegations against Abe in connection with a university project involving a close friend.
Koike told reporters Tuesday the minister’s remark was “inconceivable,” adding Inada should not have been confused about the SDF’s position.
Abe has cautioned Inada over the remark but asked her to stay on, the government’s top spokesman said Wednesday.
“The prime minister gave her the same instruction that I did…(We) want her to fulfill her responsibility to explain herself as a minister, and continue to perform her role,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.
Suga insisted Inada’s conduct will have no impact on the Tokyo assembly election or on the timing of Abe’s next Cabinet reshuffle. The prime minister is thought to be considering a change in the Cabinet lineup at some point later this year.
Renho, meanwhile, said Inada has no choice but to step down on her own or be sacked by Abe.
The Democratic Party and three smaller opposition parties are expected to agree later Wednesday to make a joint call for Inada’s resignation.
But a senior government official told reporters on Wednesday there is no need for Inada to quit, because she “took back her remark and apologized. That’s the end of it.”
A fellow Cabinet minister denied Inada needs to resign, but said she “should have noticed and corrected her comment immediately afterward.” Suga said he instructed her to swiftly retract the remark when she reported the matter to him over the phone Tuesday night.
A former defense minister slammed Inada as “not understanding the basics.”
“It’s a taboo among taboos to involve the SDF in elections or politics,” the former minister said.
A source close to the prime minister’s office, meanwhile, suggested that Inada is not likely to be swapped out prior to an envisioned Cabinet overhaul.
Abe made Inada defense minister in a reshuffle in August last year.
She is set to take part in ministerial security talks in Washington next month with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.