U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter welcomed Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada to the Pentagon Sept. 15, during Inada's first visit to the United States as defense minister. (Reuters)
Columnist

Japan’s new defense minister, Tomomi Inada, is pushing her country to become a stronger, more independent actor on the world stage — and trying to make herself prime minister in the process. But as she gets closer to both goals, she’s finding that Japan’s success is more dependent than ever on deepening cooperation with its neighbors and the United States.

Inada rose to prominence in Japan as a conservative firebrand who embraced controversial views, including questioning the facts surrounding Japan’s wartime atrocities. She once suggested that Japan should get its own nuclear weapons. She is often accused of being a revisionist — a term for those who seek to partly rehabilitate Japan’s wartime history. But as was clear to me after an hour-long interview last week during her first trip to Washington in her new role, Inada is coming to terms with the fact that if she wants to lead Japan into the future, she needs to be a globalist first.

“I think we should have a more global viewpoint and make strategies in that sense,” she said after meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter at the Pentagon. “I think it is important to develop our own defense posture. But equally important is to enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation, and another important thing is to build up our relationships with other countries as well.”

In an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies before our interview, Inada repeatedly called for better Japanese relations with its regional partners, especially South Korea, but India and Australia as well. She told me that her call for Japan to have a “global viewpoint” is meant to apply to both security and economic issues.

Inada knows that to be an effective advocate for Japan on the world stage, she must moderate her image as a nationalist hawk, an image that was born out of her previous work as a lawyer on cases that involved defending Japanese actions during World War II. Her comments on historical issues such as “comfort women” and her repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine have riled Asian allies, many of whom are wary of her assuming leadership of Japan’s government.

Due to her penchant for stylish eyewear and her meteoric rise through the ranks of Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, some have called her the Japanese version of Sarah Palin. But in her latest iteration, she more closely resembles a Japanese Hillary Clinton: tough on national security, progressive on social issues and committed to moving Japanese politics incrementally from inside the system, not as a disruptive outsider.

Her explanation for her past work, including suing the media for the alleged defamation of two accused Japanese war criminals, may not satisfy her critics.

“From my lawyer days, due to cases I have been in charge of, people tend to call me a hawkish person,” she told me. “However, I don’t see myself as hawkish; I just want to know what the truth is in history.”

If not for that controversial work, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would never have plucked Inada from obscurity and encouraged her to run for parliament in 2005. Ever since, she has been groomed by Abe as his successor. She is not shy about her ambitions.

“I think every politician wants to be the prime minister,” she said.

Inada’s potential appeal to younger Japanese is rooted in her domestic policies. She started an office inside the parliament to work on LGBT issues. “Human rights should be accepted, and people should be able to live the way they want to live,” she said, noting that she became involved after meeting a gay friend of her son.

She is also trying to break Japan’s highest glass ceiling by becoming its first female head of government. In Japan, women in the workplace still face institutional and cultural disadvantages. When Inada became a lawyer, the only office that would hire her made her promise not to get married for at least five years.

Inada’s vision of a global Japan rooted in a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance does not mesh with that of Donald Trump — even though Inada, like Trump, once suggested that Japan might develop its own nuclear option.

“I don’t agree with Donald Trump,” Inada now says. “Japan has not the intention nor the necessity to have a nuclear capability, as being the only country that has experienced a nuclear attack.”

Inada’s evolution from conservative firebrand to moderate globalist is a tricky endeavor that may or may not work. But it shows that even Japanese nationalists know that Japan’s future success is dependent on its ability to work with the rest of the world.

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