Alliance managers in both the US and Japan seem happy with the appointment of Satoshi Morimoto as defense minister of Japan.
Morimoto is a bit of a maverick, but is solidly in favor of the US-Japan alliance.
Many news reports have been a bit simplistic in referring to Morimoto as a “civilian.” It's true that Morimoto is not a member of the Diet, so technically is a "civilian." But he has been part of Japan’s power structure for a long time.
He has solid relations with the Liberal Democratic Party, which Prime Minister Noda needs at this time to help pass the consumer tax increase.
Morimoto, 71 years-old, graduated from the Defense Academy, and served in the Air Force. He retired from the military and then served in the Foreign Ministry. He graduated from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, which a good number of other Japanese experts in security policy have also attended. He speaks English very well.
Morimoto has been a regular figure at security conferences organized by the respected Pacific Forum-CSIS. The Foreign Ministry's Institute for International Affairs pulls together the Japanese delegation.
Morimoto is fully integrated into Japan's security structure. Quite often when the LDP organized research studies about security, Morimoto was a part of the team.
In the wake of last year's earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis, Morimoto was a regular commentator on crisis management. Behind the scenes, he was advising the government on how to improve its procedures.
The key aspect of this appointment is that Diet members from both the LDP and the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) respect Morimoto. He is an independent thinker.
However...the Americans might not like everything he says. He is a strong advocate of independent Japanese diplomacy, although in the context of the US-Japan alliance. For example, he advocates direct Japanese diplomacy with North Korea.
He argues that Japan not blindly follow the US, instead maintaining independent diplomacy and overall security policies, toward especially China and North Korea.
But he is strongly in favor of the alliance. He knows the key security issues backwards and forwards. He is no amateur.
With his background as a military officer and his subsequent extensive writing on security issues, Morimoto will not have any trouble winning support from the military or the defense ministry bureaucracy. His reputation among American officials is solid.
There is clearly a domestic political angle to this appointment: Morimoto is a bit of a bridge between the LDP and the DPJ. He knows all the key people in the LDP, but harbors some of the sentiments in the DPJ: Japan should not blindly say "yes" to the US on security issues.
Prime Minister Noda has made a big political bet: He has to win support from the LDP to pass the consumption tax before the Diet session ends in late June. But he also agrees with Morimoto's basic view of the alliance: it is vital, but Japan should be a little more assertive.