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Sunday, Feb. 17, 2002


Was she used -- or were Makiko's tears deemed too dangerous?

The sixth Press and Human Rights Committee Conference, held at the end of January by the Asahi Shimbun, focused on the problem of gender discrimination in the media. In a full-page feature promoting the event in the Feb. 10 issue of the newspaper, three participants started out by blasting Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent aside that "Tears are a woman's greatest weapon," saying it is the kind of irresponsible remark that journalists must watch out for.

Many supposedly progressive-minded people have branded Koizumi's comment as blatantly sexist, while others (like me) just found it ridiculously corny. It was made after then Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka choked up during a talk with reporters about her dust-up with ministry officials regarding the exclusion of some NGOs from the Afghanistan reconstruction conference. A few days later, the prime minister fired her.

Taken at face value, the comment is pure Koizumi: simplistic, naive, made to put people at ease rather than to make a point. Koizumi's mini-press conferences are pocket theatricals. Occasionally, he'll walk up to the waiting reporters humming a pop tune. And he always seems to have an epigram ready for the evening news. What an accommodating guy.

The opposition proved its irrelevance once again by making an issue out of Koizumi's stale maxim, demanding a poll of female Cabinet members to see whether or not they were offended by it. Unsurprisingly, none said they were. Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, who went on to replace Tanaka as foreign minister, even said, "I would like to cry in front of a wonderful man and have him say such a thing." The boys in the ruling party gave her a standing ovation.

But those who found Koizumi's remark strange did so because they had never thought of Tanaka as being particularly representative of her gender. Her star status transcends gender; which isn't to say she's a man, only that the media's and the public's fascination with her has less to do with the fact that she's female than with the fact that she's Makiko, the beloved daughter of one of Japan's most charismatic postwar leaders, and one of the most candid and artless public figures in the land. She is seen for who she is first and what she represents second.

But it's Makiko, the representative of her sex, that has become a martyr since her firing, with support coming from some odd quarters. Right-wing groups have been parking in front of her house and blasting encouraging remarks at it. At the other extreme, dyed-in-the-wool feminists are screaming "betrayal"; an irony of considerable magnitude considering that, as a lawmaker, Tanaka was opposed to any cause they supported.

Last week, on TV Asahi's talk show "TV Tackle," Upper House member and women's study professor Yoko Tajima defended Tanaka vociferously as a woman done wrong by a man, as if she were the heroine of a country-and-western song. "Makiko Tanaka was used," she said to the panel's male chauvinists, who had the nerve to discuss her fitness as foreign minister.

Even weirder was psychologist and feminist Chikako Ogura's opinion piece in the Asahi Shimbun, in which she claimed that Tanaka was fired because she was a "dangerous woman," meaning an "outsider" whose mandate from the people to shake up the government was, ultimately, too much of a threat to the Establishment, of which Koizumi, despite his maverick image, is a member.

According to this narrative, Koizumi exploited Tanaka's popularity to gain the premiership and, as a reward, gave her the foreign minister's job with the full intention of dumping her ("just like his wife," as Shukan Josei put it in their headline) when the opportunity arose.

The opposing narrative is that Tanaka herself agreed to support Koizumi's bid on condition that she be given the foreign minister's post if he won. Her ineptitude in the job was tolerated for as long as possible because the public still liked her, and forcing her out for a real mistake would have crippled her political career. On the other hand, being asked to leave for a problem that was not her fault is something she could survive and even profit from, as a martyr, thus solidifying her reputation. In other words, by firing her, Koizumi saved Tanaka from herself.

Though both narratives have their less-than-credible points, the second one seems to be gaining ascendancy in the media. Tanaka's reputation is based on her feisty image. She loves being cast as the provocateur, and her agenda is whatever will get her noticed. She never hid the fact that her goal as foreign minister was to shake up the ministry, and it certainly needs shaking up. Her tenure had a quixotic quality to it, but that's not what the job is about. The job is about advancing Japan's interests in the world. This realization is starting to be voiced in the media, which last fall pulled back from criticizing her after the public accused the press of "Makiko-bashing." In fact, if you listen carefully, you can hear a sigh of relief coming from the media, the government and even the citizenry.

With his support rate now down in the 50-percent range since the firing -- still quite high but more realistic in terms of conducting politics -- all eyes are now on Koizumi to finally implement his long-promised "painful" reforms.

Something good may yet come of all this.

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