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Japan Foreign Minister Fired Amid Feuding

Asia: Premier says controversies swirling around Makiko Tanaka threatened to undermine his reform efforts.

January 30, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sacked his flamboyant foreign minister Tuesday amid concern that her latest feud with bureaucrats and lawmakers was undermining his ability to reverse the nation's deep economic slide.

"The prime minister himself told me he was replacing me," Makiko Tanaka told a legion of reporters after meeting with Koizumi. "I responded by thanking him for all he has done for me."

Koizumi said he decided to remove the 58-year-old Tanaka so that the bickering wouldn't undercut passage of next year's budget. "I feel the problems in the Foreign Ministry started to affect the entire government, and parliamentary debate is my responsibility," he said. "That's why I made this decision."

Tanaka's departure could signal a turning point for Koizumi's pro-reform administration, which is coming under increasing pressure from the old guard.

"This is a glorious day for the conservatives," said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst with UBS Warburg. "They've been waiting for this."

The hugely popular Tanaka had been a prominent headline-grabber since becoming Japan's first female foreign minister in April. She called for a thorough housecleaning of her own ministry, which was reeling from a multimillion-dollar slush fund scandal, and labeled her underlings "a nest of devils" along the way.

Even her supporters, however, acknowledge that she leaves a mixed legacy. She quickly became mired in a series of petty disputes that increasingly called into question her vision and her ability to manage a large organization and wield power effectively.

Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, meanwhile, backed by powerful politicians, engaged in a death-by-1,000-leaks war against her that paid off. Her every move became grist for Japan's gossipy weekly magazines as they reported on her tantrums over not being invited to a garden party, her accusations that staff members were stealing her jewelry and her tardiness for or failure to show at appointments, including the apparent snubbing of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage on the grounds she was "too busy."

Her early support played an instrumental role in Koizumi's election, and her popularity rating remains about 70%, rivaling the prime minister's. She also brought many middle-aged female supporters into Koizumi's camp. If they side with her in this political divorce, Koizumi could suffer, a point even he has acknowledged.

"Makiko has represented the interests of common people," said Masako Noda, a 42-year-old Tokyo homemaker. "I think confidence in Koizumi and the government will weaken."

Independent political analyst Minoru Morita said conservatives now smell blood. Koizumi's popularity has been one of his few shields against conservatives, and while he remains popular, the support is based more on a lack of alternatives than the excitement the prime minister once enjoyed, Morita said.

The grass-roots political base that elected Koizumi also shows signs of wavering, analysts add. Those in favor of substantive reform have been disappointed by how little he has accomplished despite repeated promises and catchy slogans. Others, meanwhile, are heaping blame on the administration for record joblessness, the faltering economy and lower public works budgets.

The soap opera antics of the Cabinet also have distracted from Japan's many tough issues, others say. "They're all like a bunch of kids squabbling," said 71-year-old janitor Tae Kumagai. "It's out of control."

Koizumi's handling of the most recent ruckus may also hurt him. The squabble flared when the Foreign Ministry denied two nongovernmental organizations access to an Afghan reconstruction conference in Tokyo last week after they criticized the government.

Media reports suggest that Tanaka's archrival, Muneo Suzuki, a powerful member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, pressured Deputy Foreign Minister Yoshiji Nogami to bar the groups' entry. Koizumi also fired Nogami, and Suzuki has resigned from an influential foreign affairs committee in parliament.

Analysts say Tanaka acted correctly this time by fighting publicly for the groups' reinstatement.

Koizumi will try to avoid a complete Cabinet reshuffle, which would probably lead to more anti-reform ministers joining his government. Early rumblings are that he will assume the Foreign Ministry portfolio himself, at least until President Bush arrives for a summit in mid-February. One name being floated to replace Tanaka eventually is Sadako Ogata, a woman and a former head of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

While Ogata may be highly respected, however, her experience in domestic politics is minimal. That could make it relatively easy for bureaucrats and politicians to manipulate her in the no-holds-barred world of Japanese politics, some say.

If her recent profile is any indication, Tanaka may remain a thorn in Koizumi and the LDP's side. She refused Tuesday night to sign her resignation letter, which could force Koizumi to fire her outright. And she still commands significant support, which could make her effective from the sidelines.

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