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Japanese Foreign Minister Stumbles on Her Home Turf

Government: Makiko Tanaka, a fiery reformer with mass appeal, finds herself increasingly isolated amid gaffes and clashes with bureaucrats.


TOKYO — She's been called erratic, spoiled, a liar, the ice queen and a loose cannon. During the last seven months, she's insulted the emperor, the prime minister, her own political party, bureaucrats and voters.

A quick glance at the polls, however, suggests why Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka still has a job. Despite nonstop controversy and a growing chorus of powerful critics, her approval rating among ordinary Japanese is 70%. That's political capital Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi isn't willing to risk as his own popularity starts to slip and he girds for battle against entrenched special interests.

While Tanaka, 57, is still in the hot seat, however, her efficacy is open to question. Japan's first female foreign minister--a dynamo who promised to wrestle power from bureaucrats--finds herself increasingly isolated and in danger of becoming one of Japan's least effective foreign ministers.

All major decisions bypass her, say officials inside and outside the ministry, with the chief Cabinet secretary and prime minister's office directing foreign policy.

Clearly, anyone with reform ambitions would face difficulties marshaling legions of wily bureaucrats at a ministry ripe for a cleanup. Among the scandals revealed recently are six distinct embezzlement or abuse-of-funds cases involving racehorses, condos, mistresses, padded hotel bills, slush funds and lavish parties.

To some extent, events have also conspired against her. Foreign policy was an afterthought when Koizumi came to power in April intent on overhauling the economy and Japan's political structure. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks thrust Tanaka abruptly onto the world stage.

Outsider Skills Have Been Liability

Even supporters, however, say Tanaka has made her job infinitely more difficult with her repeated gaffes--including off-the-cuff remarks at odds with Japan's carefully ambiguous stance toward China and Taiwan--weak administrative skills and an ability to ruffle even the most sympathetic of feathers. Skills that worked while she was a political outsider, such as a distrust of deal-making and an aggressive manner, have been liabilities as Tanaka has endeavored to run a 5,000-member bureaucracy.

"It's good she's tried to reform the Foreign Ministry," said Mizuho Fukushima, an opposition member of parliament. "But her way of doing things is not always so smart."

Tanaka, a former legislator in parliament, is also up against some powerful adversaries. Her elite Foreign Ministry charges are skilled in nuanced warfare, and their death-by-1,000-leaks strategy has been effective, as anonymous bureaucrats have detailed her every mistake.

As the battle has intensified, Tanaka and ministry officials have rushed to trash one another in public, leaving at least one huge beneficiary. "The media love it," said Hiroshi Fujita, a journalism professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "It's become an absolute circus."

Weekly tabloids with little prior interest in diplomacy have led the assault, obsessing over her sour expressions, latest moods and messy staff battles. They've depicted her accusing an aide of stealing her ring and flying into a rage after not receiving an invite to the emperor's garden party.

She's gone through a parade of aides and secretaries, one hospitalized with a stress-related ulcer, another transferred for "looking at me funny," a third rejected as a spy. She's been tarred for canceling appointments, arriving late and leaving early.

Whether these incidents reflect a much-needed housecleaning or vindictive zeal, even critics in the serious press say they've detracted from the most important part of her job: representing Japan overseas. "Tanaka is a politician sometimes given to bursts of energy," said an editorial in the daily Asahi newspaper. "Why doesn't she channel that energy into diplomacy?"

When she has waded into policy issues, she's been excoriated for her missteps, including openly criticizing U.S. missile defense plans, disclosing the location of U.S. State Department officials hiding after the Sept. 11 attacks and using her conversations with the emperor for political advantage. "If it's true, she should commit hara-kiri," blared one tabloid about the imperial gaffe, referring to the ritual disembowelment once practiced by samurai.

The wide gap between Tanaka's professional reputation and her mass appeal reflects in part the enormous distrust ordinary Japanese have toward public officials after decades of arrogance, scandal and slush, analysts say.

"People are tired of having bureaucrats and politicians treat them like ignorant fools," said Kimiko Yagi, a gender studies professor at Josai International University in Tokyo. "In the end, they blame bureaucrats more."

In addition to the sheer entertainment value of it all, voters appreciate how Tanaka has aired the ministry's dirty laundry, including taxpayer-financed shopping sprees.

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