Japan’s Misadventure in South Sudan

How a Botched Peacekeeping Mission Is Undermining Abe

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of the Self-Defense Force, July 2017. Toru Hanai / Reuters

On a narrow street in Ogikubo, a western suburb of Tokyo, the shouts and laughter of passing schoolchildren in matching uniforms and yellow caps interrupted conversation inside the ground-floor office of Kenji Isezaki, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Although not far from the bright lights and crushing crowds of the megacity’s commercial center, Ogikubo is a rather subdued neighborhood. When I visited in May, its calm and relaxed residential atmosphere was a sharp contrast to the political rancor that was building in the capital’s government quarter, Nagatacho.

At the start of this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looked strong. He enjoyed high public approval ratings of nearly 60 percent and was expected to handily win national elections in 2018. Some even suggested he would become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. But within a matter of months, Abe and his cabinet were beset by two major scandals. The first involved the prime minister and his wife, Akie, who came under public scrutiny for having allegedly arranged the sale of public land to a right-wing school at a heavily discounted price. The second concerned Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a rising star in Abe’s cabinet, accused of covering up military reports from Japanese peacekeepers serving in South Sudan. The reports described fighting that potentially would have rendered the peacekeepers’ presence illegal under Japanese law, and the accusations against Inada would ultimately lead to her resignation in late July.

The Inada scandal was particularly striking. At a time of high regional tensions stemming from North Korea’s increasingly menacing missile program, it was a minor peacekeeping role in a distant African country that came to threaten Abe’s plans for expanding Japan's contribution to regional and global security. The prime minister has an ambitious agenda to amend Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which renounces war, by 2020, and increase the flexibility of his country's military to face down Pyongyang. But in recent months Abe has found himself on

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