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Envoy's Job Is Final Victim of Peru Siege

Japan: Called a hero during and after the Lima hostage-taking, the now-fired ambassador met with criticism at home.

May 14, 1997|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japan's "samurai" ambassador to Peru has been given the ritual chop, apparently for having the bad manners not to fall on his own sword.

Ambassador Morihisa Aoki had been billed as a hero for his steely mettle in dealing with the guerrillas who blasted into his Lima residence Dec. 17 and captured hundreds of guests invited to celebrate the Japanese emperor's birthday.

Aoki also earned international admiration for his diplomatic cool and resilient humor at a news conference he held from a wheelchair within hours of the hostages' liberation April 22.

But the chain-smoking ambassador has been under attack since the moment he set foot back in Japan, taken to task for the lax security that permitted the terrorists to seize the residence, for heavy drinking during his four months as a hostage and especially for the sin that this culture finds least pardonable: arrogance.

Although Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori wrote a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto asking that Aoki be kept in his job, Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda on Tuesday announced that he had accepted Aoki's resignation from the ambassador's post.

Aoki's critics and defenders reflect divisions within Japanese society about whether traditional hyper-politeness and colorless language are desirable traits in Japanese who work abroad.

A senior Foreign Ministry official complained that Japan imposes a crippling double standard on its diplomats. "In order to survive in international competition, in international negotiations, in trade wars, you have to be outspoken," he said. "But all of a sudden, when you get back to Tokyo, you are supposed to change."

Aoki "wasn't humble enough before the media," said analyst Norihiko Narita. "His back was too high," Narita added, using the Japanese expression for one who fails to bow low enough for propriety.

Aoki lowered his back dramatically Tuesday with profuse apologies before the parliamentary committee investigating the hostage crisis.

Arriving at the hearing room on crutches and looking more harrowed than he did immediately after his release, Aoki said he was "painfully aware of my responsibility" for an incident that "caused indescribable pain to my guests, gave great pain and anxiety to their families and also created worry for the Japanese people. . . .

"There is no excuse for the trouble I have caused, and I deeply apologize," Aoki said.

Aoki's public humiliation drew bitter words from diplomats and analysts who view Japan's culture of enforced humility as an obstacle to full Japanese participation in international affairs. But traditionalists said it was proper for the ambassador--if not his superiors--to resign in order to uphold the eroding principle of accountability.

"By serious Japanese logic, either Ambassador Aoki had to take responsibility, or Foreign Minister Ikeda had to take responsibility, or the prime minister had to take responsibility," said political analyst Minoru Morita, an authoritative voice of Japanese conventional wisdom. "Somebody had to accept the blame."

It was Hashimoto, reportedly a friend of Aoki, who called Aoki a "samurai" ambassador, a moniker that was quickly adopted by the media. But Aoki violated latter-day samurai protocol with multiple missteps.

First, he smoked several cigarettes at his televised post-liberation news conference. Although Hashimoto and many other Japanese officials are unrepentant heavy smokers, traditionalists consider smoking during public appearances a sign of disrespect.

Second, Aoki failed to offer his immediate resignation to take responsibility for the terrorist takeover, instead taking the unconventional position that it was up to the government to decide his fate.

Third, some media and analysts said Aoki had not properly apologized and chastised himself for permitting the takeover to occur.

However, some say it was an article in last week's Bungeishunju magazine that sealed Aoki's fate. The article contained anonymous allegations by unnamed former fellow hostages, all Japanese businessmen, claiming that Aoki drank, was verbally abusive and was so inept in negotiations with the guerrillas that the hostages smuggled out a message to the Japanese Foreign Ministry asking that Aoki be replaced.

Aoki's defenders say he has been subjected to a media lynching. Sankei newspaper columnist Kyoko Chino dubbed it "Aoki bashing." The tall, plain-talking 58-year-old career diplomat and former consul in Manila was always better liked outside the Foreign Ministry than inside, wrote Yasuhiro Tase in today's Nikkei newspaper.

Aoki's real transgression was to betray his excited feelings--for example, by smoking at the news conference. "Japanese society just cannot accept such a person," Tase wrote.

In an interview with the Sunday Mainichi magazine, Aoki admitted heavy drinking during his captivity but defended himself against many of the other charges.

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