Given that this was the first instance of a minister being appointed from outside of politics to the head of the Ministry of Defense, it was only to be expected that it would generate a large amount of interest in the public arena (although whether this interest was a true reflection of public concern is a matter for debate). It is certainly true to say that Morimoto's appointment has raised hopes that Japan will finally have a Defence minister that is both thoroughly familiar with his brief and prepared to defend his decisions against criticisms from both the opposition and the media. Morimoto, as a former professor at Takushoku University, has made a reputation as a commentator on Japanese defence policy for both the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun, along with the television stations affiliated with this two major news outlets. As has been pointed out by Michael Cucek, this gives Morimoto some defence against attacks launched by the particulary anti-DPJ editorial stance of both newspapers, and is evidence of PM Noda's sharp political instincts.
The fact that Morimoto has also served in the armed forces (as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Self Defense Force after graduating from the National Defense Academy of Japan), and is familiar with Japan's intelligence framework following his service as section head of the National Security Policy Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affair's Foreign Policy Bureau, has reinforced his image as "the right man for the job", with the Sankei Shimbun reporting that 60.5% of respondents to a poll on Morimoto's appointment regarded him as suitable for the position. The fact that the US Department of Defense has also welcomed Morimoto's appointment at a time when the US and Japan have been trying to find a solution to the impasse regarding the relocation of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Defense Station is also interesting, especially given the fact that Morimoto has expressed a desire in the past for Japan to move beyond the restrictions on the use of armed forces imposed by Article 9 of the Constitution and become more pro-active in its own defence and involvement in regional operations.
This is, of course, exactly what the US DoD (among others) wants to hear, and it strikes a chord with those who see Japan as a fundamental part of any regionally based security apparatus (especially within the context of the US-Japan-Australia Tripartite Dialogue), yet there are potential complications ahead. The fact that Morimoto strongly advocates a more robust defence cooperation with the US means that his view on Futenma is more likely to preserve the status quo. If Morimoto wanted to break with tradition and recommend the relocation of Marine assets to the mainland, he would have to be prepared to face the barrage of criticism this would produce in the area scheduled to receive the new base. To offset such a risk, he could unilateraly declare that a relocation must go ahead without prior consultation with local governments, but such a decision, in addition to raising questions on constitutional legality, would rebound onto other members of the DPJ who depend on regional votes and who do not enjoy the "protection" afforded to Morimoto by PM Noda. As such, Futenma will probably remain where it is, with further calls for Okinawan understanding to follow*.
Yet given the circumstances now at play within the Asia Pacific region, and the increase in tension within the South China Sea and Yellow Sea (along with the Sea of Japan, although that is a separate issue in itself), the apppointment of a defence "hawk" to oversee the realignment of defence assets to the south of the country, closer cooperation with the US, the acquisition of further submarine and surface capabilities, not to mention an enhancement to BMD systems and the purchase of F-35 aircraft, is to be expected. Although some might state that having a private citizen assume the responsibilities of a politician is inappropriate, a charge also laid against Morimoto as a result of his defence background (which apparently makes him too "close" to his portfolio and compromises the defence/civilian divide, an allegation that mirrors those recently made against Australian Department of Defence Secretary Duncan Lewis), in an atmosphere of mistrust born from concerns over the military intentions of China, all those nations of the Asia Pacific that are not directly aligned with China will seek reassurance in strong defence rhetoric backed by promises of mutual aid. 'Et pluribus unum' has become the new catchcry of a region that has not historically acted in unison against a perceived threat, hence the following decades will be instrumental in deciding whether the combined interests of the region will spark or extinguish the flames of war.
In the meantime Morimoto will need to embark on a tour of the region in order to build the type of personal relations that will help facilitate greater cooperation on security matters, and that does not only include with the United States. If Morimoto is successful in expanding Japan's regional security role and brings broad international recognition of Japan's contribution to stability, then he will be a rarity among politicians in more ways than one. We will have to wait and see how he handles the cards he has been dealt.
* As of today (June 7), members of the Naha City Council have already called for Morimoto to resign as a result of his comments that US MV22 Osprey aircraft may be moved to Futenma base. One can expect more of these "disagreements" to follow.