A Headache Koizumi Doesn't Need

Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka's blunt style and bizarre blunders could jeopardize the new Prime Minister's reformist agenda

By Brian Bremner

Makiko Tanaka, God bless her, is a lot of things. She has moxie aplenty. She doesn't suffer fools gladly. And she's enormously popular with the public for her blunt style of politicking.

All wonderful attributes that stand out in the buttoned-down and cautious political culture of Nagatacho, Japan's political nerve center. But is she a diplomat? Although we are definitely in hasty judgment terrain -- after all, she has been Foreign Minister for less than a month -- the answer is "Not on your life."


  As if Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi didn't have enough things to worry about -- namely, a sick economy, political enemies, and faction bosses with knives unsheathed right in his own Liberal Democratic Party -- he now has to contend with a loose cannon representing his country's interests abroad.

Consider what we have seen so far. Tanaka has blown off a number of important diplomatic dinners and snubbed U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had swung through town last week to discuss U.S. efforts to build a missile-defense shield and enhance security ties with Washington in the region.

In a few weeks' time, she has demoralized Japan's diplomatic corps by publicly humiliating colleagues, making and retracting allegations that she isn't getting briefed on key bilateral relationships, and pretty much improvising new policies without consulting Koizumi, let alone the Diet or the Japanese public.

True, there's plenty at the Foreign Ministry that needs fixing -- like getting rid of bureaucrats who spend millions on racehorses and condos for their girlfriends, as the latest scandal attests. But there's also a lot of serious work to do on the diplomatic front that is vitally important for Japan. Tanaka's only foreign-policy credential as far as I can see is that, as the daughter of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, she was privileged enough to tag along on state visits abroad.


  Aside from that, it's unclear that she has any interesting ideas about Japan's role in the world. And by alienating the smartest minds in Japan's foreign service, she probably will get precious little help in the months ahead formulating her ideas or making them a reality. She also has already earned plenty of enemies inside the ministry ready to leak any real or perceived blunder to a Japanese press that knows a good story when it sees one.

The latest outrage making the headlines these days is that the informed Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jaixuan in early May that henceforth Japan would issue no more visas to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Is that so? Well, the last government did grant a visa to Lee, who has heart problems, for a quick medical check with specialists in Japan in April. And her rank-and-file now says nothing has been decided on a future request, should one come from Lee. Sure, Beijing launched propaganda blasts after the visit. But it was justifiable on humanitarian grounds. The man is sick and needs medical attention.

Aside from confusing the rest of the world about Japan's priorities, Tanaka is giving Koizumi's critics plenty of ammo to start discrediting his judgment and, by extension, his credibility as a Prime Minister. And that took some doing, since the moptopped Koizumi has an approval rating above 80%.


  But both LDP elders and the opposition Democratic Party understandably blasted her excuse for canceling the scheduled meeting with Armitage. She says her exhausting schedule, both on the campaign trail for Koizumi and the ministry, caused her to panic.

In other words, she just wasn't up for a briefing about what is the most controversial shift in U.S. defense strategy in, oh, decades. And when you are feeling rundown, who wants to talk to an emissary from your biggest strategic partner on the planet at a time when security threats to Japan from China and North Korea are multifaceted?

The irony is that one of Koizumi's biggest backers has turned into one of his biggest liabilities. All the Prime Minister will say right now is that Tanaka will do just fine once she grows into her job. If she doesn't, though, and continues to make diplomatic missteps, the nightly news won't be focusing on Koizumi's reform agenda but on the latest pratfall and barrage of criticism directed at the Foreign Ministry.


  The real issue here is whether all this will ultimately reflect poorly on Koizumi, who after all has to lead the LDP to victory in this summer's Upper House Diet election. If he fails, he won't be around to push his vision for reforming the economy with tough-love restructuring policies.

Even if the Tanaka backlash isn't much of an issue then, it will be later. Koizumi talks a lot about revising the Japan's war-renouncing Constitution, giving the country's military a more proactive role in defending the nation's interest, regaining the islands Russia seized after World War II, and improving Japan's visibility and say in the global order.

All that will take some pretty deft diplomacy, and Tanaka has all the subtlety of a chainsaw. It seems to me that one of three things will happen: Tanaka will ultimately prove me wrong and turn into an ace diplomat. (I like the odds here.) Koizumi will get wise and find another role for her. Or Koizumi will do nothing but grimace as a rank amateur in a critical post makes his entire Cabinet look like a bunch of rank amateurs.

If that happens, the Koizumi government may well be remembered as a brief shining moment that quickly passed because of a headstrong Foreign Minister.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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