Japan’s fiery foreign minister vows wide-ranging shake-up

TOKYO, Reuters

Makiko Tanaka, Japan’s first female foreign minister, vowed on Wednesday to shake up the stodgy and scandal-tainted ministry.

The tough words from the popular politician sparked hopes for bolder diplomacy, but also fears that her campaign could put her on a collision course with Foreign Ministry mandarins.

Tanaka told parliament that the ministry was suffering from “deep-rooted” problems which needed to be addressed immediately.

“From the view point of the people, and for true national interest, I will carry out a thorough reform of the institution, which will also be easy to understand,” she said.

Tanaka caused a furor within the ministry on Tuesday by announcing that all personnel moves be frozen for the time being.

She made the decision after ministry officials went ahead with the removal of a key diplomat in charge of Russian affairs against her will, prompting her wrath.

“‘Never make personnel moves without my approval.’ That’s what I told them (the bureaucrats). They may have been able to get away with it if it was someone else, but not me,” Tanaka angrily told a news conference on Tuesday.

Tanaka, hailed by the media as the centerpiece and symbol of the Cabinet of reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has been critical of the ministry for its handling of an alleged embezzlement case in which a senior diplomat was arrested.

Koizumi was swept to the top job last month after convincing grass roots members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he would reform Japan’s hidebound political and economic system — and restore the party’s support ahead of upcoming elections.

Tanaka’s decision to restore the diplomat to his post in charge of Russian affairs appeared also to be aimed at crushing efforts by some heavyweights in the LDP to soften Tokyo’s stance in talks with Russia over four disputed islands off northern Japan.

Some at the ministry expressed fear that the incident could be the start of a battle between the fiery Tanaka and elite bureaucrats keen to keep control of policy.

She had a high-profile clash over personnel in her sole experience as Cabinet minister when she held the science and technology portfolio in 1994.

“Among higher officials, there are fears that she may interfere too much in personnel decisions,” said one ministry official.

But the official added that there were also high hopes among ministry officials that Tanaka would give Japanese diplomacy fresh blood and a new tone.

“She seems to be able to say things clearly. Sometimes in diplomacy, we need the minister to say difficult things to the face of ministers of other countries,” another diplomat said.

“As a boss, she may be good. She seems to live up to her words and if something happens, will not put the blame on us but rather take the responsibility herself,” he added.

Some senior officials also held out hope that the personnel spat would not lead to a major confrontation with Tanaka.

“I believe that the minister and most of the bureaucrats share the determination to restore public trust in the ministry and prevent a recurrence of the (embezzlement) scandal…so it will be unfortunate if it ends up being ‘Tanaka versus the ministry’,” the Asahi Shimbun quoted a senior official as saying.

Diplomats said with less than two weeks into her job, it was too early to judge Tanaka’s abilities, adding that she had not engaged in true diplomacy yet.