Japan's highest-ranking uniformed military officer was abruptly dismissed yesterday for making controversial remarks about civilian control of the country's defense forces.
Gen. Hiroomi Kurisu, chairman of the Joint Staff Council, was removed from office because he had said that the military might have to take "supralegal" actions to defend Japan in the event of a surprise attack or in other circumstances.
Shin Kanemaru, director general of the Japanese Defense Agency, rebuked the general publicly and said that his comments had created a misunderstanding about civilian control of the armed forces.
It was the first dismissal in Japan's postwar history of such a high-ranking military official and underscored the unusual public debate over defense issues that has arisen this year.
Kurisu has been a leader of those advocating a reappraisal of Japan's defense posture, which was fixed in the early 1950s. Generally, it provides only for self-defense forces. The constitution prohibits offensive weapons.
Kurisu has publicly challenged several of the underlying assumptions asserting at one point that it is difficult to distinguish between defensive and offensive weapons. He has tried to upgrade the status of his own office and of the military generally, once seeking direct access on a regular basis to the prime minister.
For the past three decades, public discussion of such issues has been rare in Japan. Since last January, however, the government of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda has seemed to encourage the defense debate and it was assumed by many observers that Kurisu's outspoken remarks had tacit approval at the highest levels. There were those who felt he may have been floating trial balloons on behalf of the administration.
In the latest confrontation, however, Kurisu implied a challenge to the fundamental rule of the military by civilian officials.
In an interview with a weekly magazine. Kurisu said that commanders might have to take "supralegal" actions on their own authority in certain events. As examples, he mentioned protecting a Japanese fishing boat or responding to the approach of an aircraft from a potential enemy.
The law governing the Japanese self-defense forces states that only the prime minister can order a military action.
In announcing Kurisu's removal yesterday, Kanemaru said that no "supralegal" action could be permitted by military officers even in the event of an enemy surprise attack.
In a news conference later, Kurisu defended his remarks and said he had been prepared to resign if Kanemaru disagreed with them.
"I have said what I thought was right since I became chairman of the Joint Staff Council," he told reporters. Field commanders should have the power to repel a surprise attack without waiting for orders from civilian officials, he said.
He said he was not challenging the rule of civilian control over the military, but was merely discussing powers that commanders should have before civilian leaders can exert that control in an emergency.
A veteran military officer who is said to be popular with many uniformed colleagues, Kurisu, 58, has been in trouble since the day he was appointed chairman of the council which overseas ground, sea and air forces.
On his appointment last October, he announced that the post of chairman should be attested by the emperor as are those of Cabinet ministers and said he would go to the imperial palace to write his own name in the registry of high-ranking public officials. He was refused permission to do so.
Later, Kurisu insisted that the Joint Staff Council chairman should have direct access to the prime minister, instead of making reports through civilian ministers. His civilian superior said he should not have that right.
In a subsequent controversy, he declared that Japan should have the right to "attack the other side's bases" to defend itself if attacked, a position many felt violated the premise that Japan can have only defensive weapons.
Kurisu is a graduate of Tokyo University and a veteran of service in the Imperial Navy in World War II. In 1951, he joined the police reserve force, predecessor of the self-defense forces, and later was military attache in Paris.
In October 1976, he was promoted to chief of staff of the ground self defense forces and elevated a year later to the council chairmanship.