South Sudan Peacekeeping Mission Comes Back to Haunt Shinzo Abe of Japan

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TOKYO — Japan’s defense minister and one of its top military officers are said to be preparing to resign over allegations that they misled Parliament and the public over dangers faced by Japanese soldiers on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, dealing another blow to the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Controversy over official accounts of the mission, which Japan ended in May, has weakened Mr. Abe’s government, contributing to plunging approval ratings and undercutting the prime minister’s efforts to loosen decades-old legal constraints on the military.

The Japanese news media reported on Thursday that the defense minister, Tomomi Inada, and the officer, Gen. Toshiya Okabe, chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Forces, as the Japanese army is known, had informed colleagues and superiors of their intention to step down. The resignations would coincide with an internal Ministry of Defense inquiry into the South Sudan episode, the results of which are scheduled to be delivered to the government on Friday.

General Okabe declined on Thursday to comment to a group of reporters about his plans. Ms. Inada did not immediately address a report by NHK, the national broadcaster, asserting that she had decided to resign.

The question of whether the military and senior officials in Mr. Abe’s government deliberately withheld information about safety at a United Nations compound in South Sudan, where about 330 Japanese peacekeepers were based, is one of several allegations of wrongdoing to have dogged the prime minister in recent months. Support for the administration has dropped to about one-third of voters, according to multiple newspaper surveys.

Mr. Abe has also been hurt by accusations of favoritism toward friends and conservative sympathizers. Two of those sympathizers, a married couple who managed a right-wing educational foundation in Osaka, were questioned by prosecutors on Thursday over accusations that they illegally obtained financial aid from the government. Mr. Abe’s wife, Akie Abe, was “honorary principal” of a school being built by the foundation, Moritomo Gakuen, which had secured public land for the project at a cut-rate price, raising suspicions of influence-peddling.

Mr. Abe and his wife have denied intervening with officials on the foundation’s behalf.

With the anticipated resignations of Ms. Inada and General Okabe, Mr. Abe may be seeking to prevent further fallout from the South Sudan affair. Some had expected Ms. Inada to be afforded a more graceful exit in a cabinet reshuffle planned for next month.

Gen. Toshiya Okabe, chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Forces.

Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force, via European Pressphoto Agency

The top civilian bureaucrat in the defense ministry, Tetsuro Kuroe, is also widely expected to be replaced.

“Instead of taking clear responsibility, Abe seems to want to put an end to the issue by pinning blame on those below him,” said Hiroshi Kamiwaki, a professor of constitutional law at Kobe Gakuin University. “The problem is that people don’t trust him anymore.”

Self-Defense Forces personnel spent about five years in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a protracted civil war. They handled relatively low-risk logistics and infrastructure-related work as part of a larger multinational United Nations force.

The mission was nonetheless controversial. Japan’s constitution renounces war, and as a result Japanese peacekeepers operate under much stricter limits than those of other countries. One of the limits is that Self-Defense Forces personnel are only supposed to be dispatched to areas where there is no ongoing armed conflict, lest they be drawn into a firefight.

Peace in South Sudan has always been fragile, and conditions there deteriorated markedly last year after a peace deal between rebels and the government collapsed. Fighting spread from the capital, Juba, to other parts of the country, with reports of massacres and rapes. Two Chinese peacekeepers were killed.

Mr. Abe’s government, under pressure from the news media and the opposition parties, contended that the area where the Self-Defense Forces were stationed was peaceful. But records kept by personnel on the ground painted a starkly different picture, of fighting around the compound and a breakdown of order within the United Nations force.

That was problematic for Mr. Abe, who strongly supported the peacekeeping mission, which fit his agenda of seeking a more active role for Japan on international security issues. His government passed a law in 2015 allowing the Self-Defense Forces to engage in combat outside Japan, in limited situations, and has proposed amending the Constitution to loosen constraints further, which has met with political resistance.

Rather than disclose the internal records from South Sudan, Ms. Inada initially told Parliament that they had been discarded. But she later reversed herself and said copies had been found on a Defense Ministry staff member’s computer — prompting accusations of a cover-up and leading the government to bring its peacekeepers home.