New Japan Foreign Minister Is Anything but Diplomatic


She's declared war on bureaucrats, slighted Washington, offended Moscow and faced down accusers who consider her crass, arrogant, erratic and a disgrace to women.

And that's just her first month.

Whether or not you like her style, Japan's first female foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, has been shaking up the country's politics ever since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asked her in late April to manage Japan's diplomacy.

The circus-like atmosphere, ministerial bickering, uncharacteristic humor, blunt talk and decidedly undiplomatic approach seen during her short tenure are a huge hit in a nation where back-room wheeling and dealing is the political norm.

"I support her," says Hiroe Aoki, a 52-year-old homemaker who lives in Tanaka's Niigata prefecture, about 150 miles north of Tokyo. "She's had a little bit of a rough start, but I hope she overcomes that."

It remains to be seen, however, whether she can overcome her many critics and perceived policy weakness to translate the early smoke into heat and light. "Japanese people enjoy Madame Tanaka's big adventure on TV," says Takuya Tasso, one of many lawmakers she's clashed with. "It's interesting and enjoyable, but not the job of a Cabinet member."

Tanaka, 57, the daughter of a prime minister, got the plum job after marshaling Liberal Democratic Party forces to help get Koizumi elected. Even during the campaign, however, she set off a controversy when she referred to recently deceased Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi as "Mr. Dead" and slammed him for leaving Japan so deeply in debt.

She has vowed to clean up her ministry, which has been plagued by scandal after a former bureaucrat embezzled at least $440,000 and spent it on racehorses and girlfriends.

"You must be watching me and holding your breath with great fear," she told Japanese diplomats at a welcome meeting. A few days later, she lashed out at ministry officials for failing to have any detailed maps, dictionaries, time zone lists or current foreign newspapers.

She said of her impatient style: "When you're going to war and you're hungry, you need food right away."

Since then, the public has relished all the dirty laundry that's been aired as the minister and bureaucrats face off. She's painted her underlings as haughty elites making corrupt decisions far from public view. They've charged that she's a control freak and a threat to Japanese diplomacy. "I seriously think she has psychological problems," says one senior diplomat, requesting anonymity.

Tanaka delayed for three days a scheduled introductory telephone call to U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, canceled telephone calls with her counterparts in the European Union and Russia, and skipped a dinner with Argentina's foreign minister. And when Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage arrived in Tokyo to brief her on U.S. missile plans, she declined to see him.

One Western diplomat said Tanaka's snub actually worked out better for Washington: Armitage got in to see Koizumi instead.

Keeping the world at bay while fighting guerrilla bureaucrats hasn't played well in the respected media here. "A foreign minister ruled by sentiment and emotion cannot handle diplomatic affairs properly," sniffed the conservative daily Yomiuri Shimbun. "No room for a loose cannon," read another Yomiuri headline.

The bureaucrats, meanwhile, have been quick to leak anything that might make her look bad. And they've often found their target. "Makiko parachuted into the ministry without any weapons and got hurt," says Shojiro Watanabe, a political analyst and author of several books on Tanaka, the richest member of Koizumi's Cabinet, and on her father, the late political kingmaker Kakuei Tanaka.

Hauled up before parliament, she has called the ministry a "castle full of demons," explained that her decision not to see Armitage was the result of physical and mental stress, and charged the bureaucrats with intimidating her. "Is there anyone who could really intimidate you?" one lawmaker snapped back.

The drama has left many Japanese glued to their televisions. Viewer ratings for normally staid parliamentary hearings have doubled since the administration came to power, with Tanaka singled out for her fiery speeches, imperious body language and use of the phrase "Give me a break."

In one recent session she even cut short questioning by snapping: "Hold on, I have to go to the bathroom."

Analysts say resistance to change by entrenched bureaucrats is enormous and that Japan stands to benefit at the hands of elected officials who exert more control. In the past, Japanese foreign ministers have been "pets" of the powerful civil servants, Kenichi Ito, president of the Japan Forum on International Relations, wrote in a newspaper column.

That said, even supporters say Tanaka is difficult to work for and would arguably be much more effective if she mixed some honey with the vinegar.

"She's a lonely queen who's backed up by the media," says Katsuhiko Shirakawa, a fellow lawmaker from Niigata prefecture. "We're just seeing an image."

Shunjiro Ishizuka, a retired journalist who has known her for more than 30 years, however, says she's very intelligent, kind and loyal.

Pundits trace many of her strengths and weaknesses back to her late father, whom she adored. When Makiko Tanaka was 3, her older brother died, prompting her father to transfer many of his expectations to her. "He raised me almost as though I was his son," Tanaka said in a 1991 interview.

By most accounts, Kakuei Tanaka indulged his headstrong daughter. In one story, several politicians arrived at the house to see her, then 4 or 5, sliding down the banister stark naked.

But he adored her, always found time to check her homework, answer her questions and debate with her. In contrast to her often blunt approach, he was a master at gentle persuasion and understatement. At times he called her a fighting cock, an unbroken horse and his domestic opposition. "Father's Lofty Ideals Should Guide Tanaka," said one recent headline.

When she was 14, she told her father she was going to school in the United States. He reportedly slapped her. She didn't wince and after a six-month standoff got her way, eventually graduating from a Quaker high school in Pennsylvania.

When she got married, her father took her husband, Naoki, aside and said: "It's like you're marrying a man. If you're expecting her to cook or iron for you, you'd better forget it."

In 1974, two years after her father became prime minister, Makiko Tanaka and her mother were humiliated when the news broke that he had two mistresses and several illegitimate children. When he died in 1993, Tanaka refused to let her half-siblings attend her father's funeral.

Tanaka was elected a lawmaker from Niigata a few months before her father's death. While the Tanaka name certainly helped, she ran as an independent and campaigned aggressively on family, medical and aging issues, describing her own frustration at caring simultaneously for her father, husband and children.

Since then, she's been reelected twice. Her supporters say she's learned from the master--her father--and shouldn't be underestimated.

But critics counter that she's now in one of the most difficult spots of her career. "The bureaucrats' knives are out. A line's been crossed," says one senior Western diplomat.

Her talents as an agitator and powerful speaker also work better on offense than defense, adds political analyst Hisayuki Miyake. She'll need to improve all aspects of her game, analysts say, if she hopes to achieve what many believe is her ultimate ambition--to become Japan's first female prime minister.


Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World