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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2001

Tanaka deserves much better

Japanese politics were never famous for their logic. But the fuss surrounding Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka plumbs new depths.

Tanaka is criticized as having no foreign policy. That is nonsense. Immediately on being made foreign minister she showed she would give strong priority to relations with Asia. On both the Yasukuni Shrine and history textbook issues, she showed deep sensitivity to the need for good relations with China and South Korea. She cast doubts on U.S. missile-defense strategies. By Japanese standards, this is a highly activist foreign policy.

But having unveiled her policies, she immediately ran into strong opposition from the Cabinet and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In this situation, the rules say a foreign minister must remain silent about his or her own views, which she has done. To interpret that silence as lack of policy is to take white and call it black. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of colorblindness in Japanese politics, and we now discover the victims include even the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama.

An Oct. 21 editorial in a leading Japanese rightwing newspaper plumbed the depths of illogic even further by blaming Tanaka for the strains in Japan's relations with China and South Korea while praising Koizumi for seeking to repair those relations. For those of us with memory spans of more than three weeks, the truth was, of course, the complete reverse.

Much is made of reports about Tanaka's alleged minor protocol mistakes and mishaps in dealing with people and information. But these reports are often fed to a sensation-seeking media by a highly antagonistic Foreign Ministry. As well, she suffers daily from nerve-wracking pressure and isolation in her bid to clean up her ministry. A weaker person would have cracked up long ago.

Some criticize her for not involving herself in concrete ministry reforms. But why should she? Many Foreign Ministry watchers agree that there has long been something deeply unhealthy about that elitist organization. Its separation from the rest of the bureaucracy and relative lack of "amakudari" outlets create a mindset that justifies the worst kind of waste and petty corruption. And when there is amakudari, the corruption sometimes ceases to be petty.

Immaturity and lack of bureaucratic power also seem to encourage reversion to traditional Japanese vices. One is bowing to the strong and despising the weak, as seen in knee-jerk obeisance to a powerful Washington and a seeming aversion to Africa and Asia, especially the Middle East. Another is the way the ministry clings to its falsely contrived Northern Territories, anti-Moscow policies as if this small area ("nawabari") of political control within Japan somehow creates identity and justifies existence.

In this situation, the only cure could well be to drop a bomb on the entire outfit and hope that something better emerges from the pieces. Haggling over details could be as useful as using chopsticks to attack jelly.

But even if all or some of the criticisms against Tanaka are correct, they miss the point. Koizumi's instincts may be useless when it comes to economic policy, but in choosing her as foreign minister, he was right. More than most other nations, Japan needs a face. As foreign minister, Tanaka provides just that face.

For decades now the world has been presented with a parade of anonymous, linguistically incompetent, po-faced, male politicians and officials whose main skill has been to avoid any form of coherent argument, debate or explanation of Japanese policies. The damage to Japan's international interest has almost matched that caused by the Pearl Harbor attack, wartime atrocities in Asia and the postwar trade disputes -- combined.

Tanaka could have turned all this around. As the daughter of one of Japan's more significant postwar prime ministers, she commands international attention automatically. She is a very feminine lady from a nation the world sees as having Talibanist antifemale prejudices. Thanks to youthful experience in the United States, she understands how a few of us non-Japanese think. She also has good English, an outgoing personality and a willingness (until recently squashed) to speak frankly.

Is there anyone else in the grubby, biased, male chauvinist, narrow-minded ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party who could even begin to compete with her as Japan's face to the world? For an answer, compare the bored expressions on the faces of past U.S. presidents meeting past Japanese prime ministers with the genuine interest shown by Asian and Western officials meeting Tanaka.

True, I have to admit to some bias since, for some reason, I was recently made a member of the private consultative group that meets monthly in the Foreign Ministry to discuss foreign policy issues with her. But I also have to admit that there, for once, I find myself talking to someone with a sensible interest in foreign policy. She is a rare creature -- a politician who listens; who treats each member, hawk or dove, rambling or concise, with respect, while taking copious notes.

Then a day or so later I turn on my television to see the lineup of politicians and commentators keen to attack her. Could any one of them even begin to be the face of Japan?

Gregory Clark is honorary president of Tama University and a member of the "Private Discussion Committee" set up in September by Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka to discuss international affairs.

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