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A Japanese Soap Opera

January 31, 2002

Japanese officials love speaking of their devotion to consensus, harmony, inclusion. Bosses ask employees for their opinions on new programs and products. Everyone knows well the aphoristic warning: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Apparently someone forgot to tell the foreign minister.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called in Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka on Tuesday and fired her, ending a 10-month drama that rivals any Noh or Kabuki play. In a country that throws a blanket over controversy, Tanaka and her underlings in the Foreign Ministry quarreled publicly virtually from the start of her reign. Japan ate it up; her favorable ratings were around 70%, about the same level as Koizumi's--and for much the same reason: a promise of change after years of stagnation.

The prime minister swept into office promising to restore an economic system that not long ago had positioned Japan at the top of the world. The last decade has been so disastrous that a generation with little recollection of Japan's postwar devastation wonders whether the problems are systemic. Hint: yes.

Tanaka too promised to change a hidebound ministry. Not that the U.S. State Department or Britain's Foreign Office are hotbeds of innovation. But Japanese ministries are notorious for resistance to change, and Tanaka had difficulties almost from the start. She tried to get to the bottom of a series of ministry scandals involving padded expense accounts and slush funds. That quickly earned her enemies who were happy to detail all her blunders to the press.

Women especially saw Tanaka as powerful in a land where women have little power. But she bungled much of it away. She complained about not being invited to a party--very bad etiquette in this traditional culture. She stood up a visiting U.S. diplomat. She skipped meetings and committed verbal gaffes. It was surprising that after watching her father, Kakuei Tanaka, preside in the 1970s as one of the country's most powerful prime ministers, she hadn't picked up a few more political skills.

Koizumi let it go on far too long. He has not made much use of his own high ratings, instead puttering around the edges while the banking system rots and industrial production drops. Average Japanese, frozen out of the system but hoping for a louder voice under Koizumi, now may see their hopes dashed.

Japan's impressive comeback from the ruins of war provides the foundation for continued success in a more open society with a more involved electorate. Koizumi needs to use his constituents' good feelings to change the nation to one where elected officials, not career bureaucrats, determine policy.

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