Yamasaki’s appointment fuels doubts over diplomatic chain of command

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Monday’s Cabinet reshuffle has breathed new life into a long-standing conundrum relating to the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi: Who is in charge of diplomacy?

In addition to the Cabinet shakeup, Koizumi appointed two people as his own special advisers — Yoriko Kawaguchi, who has just been relieved of her job as foreign minister, and Taku Yamasaki, a long-term Koizumi ally well-versed in defense issues.

There is concern that these appointments — in particular that of Yamasaki — could further confuse the chain of command in terms of the administration’s foreign policy formulation.

“The range of (Yamasaki’s) authority is vague and he will have few staff. He could cause confusion because he is likely to send out messages (about government policy) without authority,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor in chief of the Japanese political newsletter Insideline.

Currently, two veteran bureaucrats are assigned to the Prime Minister’s Official Residence as assistant chief Cabinet secretaries, one in charge of foreign policy affairs and the other in charge of defense matters. Given Yamasaki’s career as a veteran politician and his personal ties to Koizumi, it will be difficult for them to ignore Yamasaki, Toshikawa said.

Yamasaki, a former Liberal Democratic Party vice president who lost his Diet seat in the House of Representatives election last November, is said to be the only politician that Koizumi can personally rely on as a friend.

In April, Yamasaki drew criticism when he secretly visited China to open unofficial diplomatic talks with North Korean officials.

At that time, North Korea was approaching Japanese lawmakers — sometimes via a third party — in an effort to break the deadlock on bilateral ties, while the Foreign Ministry was demanding that Pyongyang first hold official talks on the abduction issue.

Monday’s appointments triggered speculation that Koizumi was merely throwing a lifeline to Yamasaki, who aims to stage a Diet comeback via a by-election scheduled for April.

Junichiro Koga, who defeated Yamasaki in the November election on the ticket of the Democratic Party of Japan, resigned from the Diet last week after admitting that he had lied about his academic background.

In an interview published by Nishi-Nihon Shimbun on Tuesday, Yamasaki rejected this speculation, stating that serving in his new post will only reduce the time he can spend in his hometown, Fukuoka, for the election campaign.

During the same interview, Yamasaki pledged to concentrate first on diplomatic talks tied to the realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan, saying he will form a joint team to unify staff at the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Agency and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

But Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura seemed less than enthusiastic about Yamasaki’s involvement in diplomatic affairs.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Machimura suggested that Yamasaki should first concentrate on regaining his Diet seat in the April election.

“People can freely express their views and intention. But I’d like him to put much energy on the election, though this advice may not be necessary,” Machimura said.

Indeed, even without Yamasaki, the Koizumi administration has often been criticized for its apparent lack of a unified control center in forming diplomatic policies.

Kawaguchi, a former trade ministry bureaucrat and non-Diet member, was criticized for her lack of political clout while she served as foreign minister.

Koizumi has only said he will give Yamasaki “special missions” in dealing with current issues, declining to elaborate.