Kiichi Miyazawa was elected Japan’s 49th prime minister on Tuesday and appointed as his foreign minister an outspoken politician who has offended blacks, Chinese, women and others with his off-the-cuff remarks.
Highlighting Miyazawa’s 20 Cabinet selections, the appointment of Michio Watanabe, 68, to serve as Japan’s face to the world raised some eyebrows on both sides of the Pacific.
Miyazawa, considered a polished intellectual able to hold his own in English with the likes of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, won 276 of 492 votes cast in the lower House of Representatives. His election had been assured by his victory in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential elections Oct. 27.
In an effort to suppress factional infighting, Miyazawa gave Cabinet posts to only two of his own followers, while dealing out six to the faction supported by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and dividing the rest among three other groups.
Other key appointments included Tsutomu Hata, 56, as finance minister, and Kozo Watanabe, 59, as minister of international trade and industry.
The man who may have the most unenviable job is Masami Tanabu, 56, the new agriculture minister who immediately faces escalating foreign demands to open Japan’s rice market. But Tanabu, a former Olympic ice hockey player, is considered relatively inexperienced and is likely to take a back seat on the issue to Koichi Kato, 52, an agricultural expert who was named chief Cabinet secretary.
But it was Michio Watanabe’s appointment that drew the most attention.
Praised for his vigor and decisiveness, Watanabe was also named deputy prime minister on Tuesday. With his previous experience as finance minister and other key ministerial posts, he is now considered Miyazawa’s chief rival.
Political observers, however, question whether he has the diplomacy to serve in the sensitive post of foreign minister. His penchant for blunt talk and colorful anecdote--a trait that endears him to much of the public here--has also gotten him into many political jams.
In 1988, Watanabe outraged American blacks by saying that they did not care about going bankrupt and skipped out on debts. He ended up apologizing and now contributes thousands of dollars a year to black causes. He also had to apologize for referring to Chinese as cave-dwellers and attributing the 800% inflation rate in Brazil to “bad politics.’
“He is crass and rude and insensitive and limited in scope,” said Steve Clemons, executive director of the Japan America Society of Southern California. “In the international arena, diplomatic tact and careful consideration of words are needed.”
At home as well, Watanabe was forced to apologize to a woman essayist for criticizing her quick remarriage; she claimed his remarks exhibited his double standard toward women and men in divorce cases. One of his most celebrated gaffes involved a remark comparing voters supporting opposition parties to “fish with a lower IQ, caught with a feather and lure.”
But the other side of Watanabe’s bluntness may be that he will articulate Japan’s positions more directly and forcefully than previous Japanese officials, an approach many Americans may prefer.
“Sometimes the Japanese way of thinking is criticized as fuzzy and vague, but he’s the opposite. He has a more clear-cut character,” said Hiroshi Matsumoto, associate managing director of the International House of Japan. “I think this will help the U.S. understand Japanese thinking.”
Ikuo Kabashima, a political science professor at Tsukuba University, said Watanabe “has the strength to deliver when he promises the U.S. something,” because of his own domestic power base.
But Kabashima added: “He may be smart, but he is not clean enough in political ethics and is not polished enough to become prime minister. And deep in his ideology, he is an ultra-right nationalist.”
Watanabe’s career stalled after he was implicated in the influence-peddling Recruit Co. scandal in the late 1980s. Indeed, one critic called the Miyazawa Cabinet a “return of the bad guys,” referring to the resurfacing of figures implicated in the Recruit and Lockheed bribery and influence scandals.
But Kabashima said that the members generally represent capable, experienced politicians.
Watanabe is a hawk on defense, formerly a member of the “Blue Storm” rightist group of 20 years ago that included such politicians as outspoken U.S. critic Shintaro Ishihara. In a stance that may delight Americans but antagonize fellow Asians, Watanabe has called for Japan to assume more of the burden for its own national defense, rather than trouble U.S. taxpayers.
He also has criticized former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu’s handling of the Persian Gulf crisis and strongly supported the dispatching of Japanese self-defense forces to join U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Watanabe has said Japan must replace the United States as a chief donor of international aid. “America is awash in red ink; Japan is in the black. (American) business is being beaten up by Japanese one after another,” he said.