A recent remark by Senior Vice Foreign Minister Masahisa Sato in the Diet has provided fodder for a rethink on the role of politicians.

Sato, who served in the Self-Defense Forces and belongs to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, expressed his determination as newly appointed senior vice foreign minister by quoting a passage from the oath of service, which is sworn by newly enrolled SDF members.

“While working on my duties, I am determined to respond to the mandate of the people by making every effort to carry out my responsibilities while laying my life on the line, regardless of the dangers I may face,” he told the Upper House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense on Dec. 5.

By no means should this language have been used by a politician. When Sato came under fire from opposition parties, he told the Diet, “It is very regrettable if my statement caused a misunderstanding as a result.”

It goes without saying that politicians and SDF members have different roles to play.

The principal duty of the SDF is to defend Japan and the country’s peace and independence. SDF members have to put their lives at risk for that purpose, so their oath of service has a special significance.

By contrast, politicians are called on to guide Japan in the proper direction from a broader perspective. Politicians and SDF members have to stand on different viewpoints and retain a certain level of tension between them.

The principle of civilian control mandates that politics should take precedence over military affairs.

Out of remorse over Japan’s prewar years when the runaway behavior of the military authorities went uncontrolled, Article 66 of the Constitution has stipulated that “the prime minister and other ministers of state must be civilians.”

That provision is aimed at ensuring that civilian members of the Cabinet, who hold themselves responsible before the Diet, control military affairs and prevent armed forces from having their own way.

While he served in the SDF, Sato is currently in the position of a civilian. The fact that he still quoted the passage from the oath of service hints at the danger that a politician, who should be controlling the SDF, could identify himself as an SDF officer.

His remark could only be called an imprudent one that goes against the spirit of civilian control.

Sato is a top official with the Foreign Ministry, whose mission is to evade war through diplomatic talks. Sato misunderstands his role if he intends to take charge of diplomacy while remaining in the mind-set of an SDF officer.

He has to change his way of thinking, now that he is a politician.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono defended Sato in one of his Diet responses.

“To defend the people, Foreign Ministry employees must also ‘make every effort to carry out their responsibilities while laying their lives on the line, regardless of the dangers they may face,’” Kono said.

Granted, diplomats may sometimes have to put their lives at risk in fulfilling their duties. But that should not be discussed on the same level as the stance that the senior vice foreign minister took in quoting the passage from the SDF oath of service.

A politician appointed to the post of senior vice foreign minister has the mission to stick to the position that the possibility of a diplomatic solution should be pursued through and through to defend the lives and property of the people.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 10