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Friday, Feb. 1, 2002

Truth and consequences

The forced resignation of Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka says a lot about Japan's sloppy politics and its emotional inability to focus on the rights and wrongs of a dispute.

The dispute began with the foreign ministry arbitrarily ordering two key Japanese nongovernmental organizations not to attend the recent international conference on aid to Afghanistan. This order was made despite the fact that many other NGOs from Japan and around the world were attending.

Tanaka was not consulted about the exclusion order. When she discovered what had happened she immediately ordered her officials to withdraw the order, which they reluctantly did on the second and final day of the conference.

By every standard Tanaka had done the right thing. The conference delegates applauded her decision. So, too, did public opinion in Japan. The two NGOs the Foreign Ministry had tried to exclude had long taken the lead in giving aid to Afghan refugees. There was absolutely no reason why they should have been excluded, even if the ministry does have a track record in Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere of trying to exclude activist and progressive-minded NGOs that could impinge on its conservative and sometimes influence-peddling, aid-giving agenda.

Indeed, even the Foreign Ministry seems to have realized it had to justify the decision. The head of the two excluded NGOs, Kensuke Ohnishi, confirmed bluntly that the ministry official who told him about the exclusion, Toshinori Shigeie, had blamed it all on pressure from Muneo Suzuki, a powerful Liberal Democratic Party politician and avowed enemy of Tanaka.

Suzuki was said to be angry about a newspaper article in which Ohnishi had criticized official intervention in NGO activities. Tanaka also said that her vice minister, Yohshiji Nogami, had confirmed Suzuki's involvement.

And there, normally, the matter should have ended. Suzuki's abrasive temperament and his close involvement with and meddling in Foreign Ministry affairs had long been known. It was highly unlikely that the ministry would have made the exclusion decision by itself.

But when questioned Nogami took it on himself to unequivocally deny that he had even mentioned Suzuki's name to Tanaka. Tanaka quickly rebutted Nogami. The media and opposition politicians leaped at yet another opportunity to stir the pot in the Tanaka-Foreign Ministry confrontation.

Rarely have the rights and wrongs of a dispute been so clear, with Nogami strung up tightly on his own petard. If, as he claimed, Suzuki was not involved and the ministry alone decided to exclude the two NGOs without telling the minister, then he is highly culpable. If Suzuki was involved, then he, Nogami, is even more culpable, both for lying and for allowing an outsider to distort policy. Either way, he is guilty.

But throughout the entire week that the dispute had simmered almost no one made that crucial point. Instead debate raged over the almost irrelevant issue of whether or not Tanaka told the truth when she said that Nogami had mentioned Suzuki's name. The fact that Nogami had every reason to want to distort the truth and embarrass Tanaka since his ministry had been exposed constantly by Tanaka for corruption, prevarication and incompetence was also ignored.

By insisting she did tell the truth, by refusing to run away from the issue, she seems to have committed the ultimate Japanese crime. She has caused a fuss. The fact that she has been in the right on the NGO question, and that Shigeie later reluctantly confirmed that she was right about Suzuki, was also irrelevant.

This antifuss mentality is a dangerous byproduct of Japan's "groupist" ethic. It may do much to keep group harmony. But it does enormous damage to Japan. Subjective shame rather than objective guilt becomes the criterion for morality.

It is a major reason why scandals have to be covered up; often it is those who expose the scandals rather than the perpetrators who have to take the blame. Gangsters proliferate because they can so easily intimidate the innocent simply by threatening noise and a false scandal.

The flip side to all this is the strange way in which people behave when they are finally exposed for wrongdoing. They do not apologize for the wrongdoing. Instead they bow deeply and apologize for having caused a "disturbance" to the public ("seken o sawagasu"), and for having caused fuss and inconvenience ("meiwaku") to society.

Ironically, Makiko's father, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, was a victim of the same distorted groupist, meiwaku mentality. He, too, had a strong personality. When the 1973 oil shock began to hurt the economy, he came under attack from articles in a rightwing magazine unhappy with his pro-China policies. He could have survived those attacks if not for his October 1974 decision to appear before foreign correspondents who sought crudely to echo the attacks in the one article that happened to have an English summary.

For Japan and its media, the content of the article (later proved to be legally unfounded) was irrelevant. Relevant only was the fact that he had been attacked in public by foreigners. Disturbance had been caused, and by some strange twist of logic it was he, not the foreigners, that had caused the disturbance. Eventually he was forced to resign, in disgrace.

Like father, like daughter. As someone who met Tanaka regularly in her private Foreign Ministry discussion group, I have to admit that she made little effort to disguise the foibles sometimes common to those with strong femininity. She could also have been more polite in her admirable efforts to clean up the corruption and lethargy in her ministry.

As well, it is no secret how she antagonized Japan's rightwing media and the male-chauvinist conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Party by trying to push a progressive foreign policy that emphasized relations with Asia, especially China, rather than continued subservience to an anti-China United States.

But none of this justifies the crudely sneaky way in which she was left open and alone to humiliating attack from enemies both within and outside her ministry. That one of her main attackers should have been Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, who has long held a grudge against Tanaka because of the way her father thoroughly defeated his father in the 1972 LDP leadership election, is little short of disgusting.

Japan, its politicians, media and bureaucrats should all be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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

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