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Staff writer Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took the nation by surprise in late April by appointing the key foreign ministry post to Makiko Tanaka, who despite her enormous popularity with voters obviously lacked experience in foreign policy.

A month later, Tanaka is on the verge of either becoming the biggest headache for the Koizumi Cabinet or a driving force in sustaining the high public support rating the administration is enjoying.

Experts generally agree that Tanaka has so far performed poorly in her diplomatic duties, while opinions are divided over her attempts to reform the operations of the ministry, which before her arrival came under fire over an embezzlement scandal involving a ministry official accused of diverting tens of millions of yen in taxpayer money for his private use.

One telling episode was her inability to answer a question on U.S. missile defense strategy at a Diet session last week.

Asked to comment on the missile defense framework by Katsuya Okada, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, Tanaka said she could not answer because she had not been briefed on the issue by ministry officials.

She later corrected her statement, saying she had received information regarding missile defense, but the talks between senior ministry officials and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had not been summarized for her as requested.

“It’s a great shame that she could not even comment on such an important topic as missile defense,” said Motofumi Asai, professor of international relations at Meiji Gakuin University.

“If she doesn’t know about policy issues, she must study them. But I don’t see her doing that.”

Takashi Inoguchi, professor of political science at Tokyo University, also attributed Tanaka’s poor performance to “lack of preparation.”

According to media reports over the weekend, Tanaka told her Chinese counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan, over the telephone on May 7 that Japan would not again issue an entry visa for former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. This seemed to fly in the face of a decision made just a few weeks earlier by the previous administration, headed by Yoshiro Mori, to allow Lee to visit Japan for a heart exam.

Tanaka’s reported remark, apparently made without coordinating with her colleagues in the Koizumi Cabinet, was not disclosed in Foreign Ministry briefings to the media.

During an Upper House session Monday, Tanaka refused to confirm whether she had made such a statement, saying she could not divulge every detail of diplomatic conversations.

Inoguchi pointed out that although policies may well change when the Cabinet changes, Tanaka should be more careful about making comments in direct talks with her foreign counterparts.

“Tanaka does not seem to understand the importance of the remarks made in her capacity as foreign minister,” he said.

Tanaka, daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who normalized Japan’s relations with China in 1972, has vowed to improve ties with Beijing that have been seriously damaged by a row over a controversial history textbook, the Lee visit and curbs on farm imports from China.

Shortly after taking up her post, she publicly criticized the authors of the textbook, saying they were “trying to distort history.” But she reversed her comments last week and told the Diet that further revisions to the textbook could not be made unless obvious factual errors were found. She said her initial views were solely based on media reports, rather than her own research.

Asai said China, which values personal ties, may be counting on Tanaka as “the last hope” of restoring the clouded relations.

However, he said, it is unclear whether Tanaka can rebuild the relationship as she changes her position easily. “If she just holds a pro-China stance without having firm policies, it might lead to inconsistency and disappointment for China.”

Experts also questioned Tanaka’s diplomatic judgment after not meeting with Armitage when he visited Japan earlier this month to discuss the new U.S. missile defense strategy.

Tanaka originally said she did not meet Armitage because she was busy with “personal business,” but she later told the Diet that she was resting at a library because she was “both physically and mentally panicking” over tight schedules.

Akihiko Tanaka, professor of international relations at Tokyo University, said there was no excuse for the foreign minister to fail to meet Armitage because he is one of the most important U.S. policymakers on Japan and he brought a letter from President George W. Bush.

A more serious problem is the reason for canceling the meeting, professor Tanaka said.

“The foreign minister must stay calm and show leadership when emergency situations arise, and in such circumstances, she cannot say she simply panicked.”

The minister also canceled telephone talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Javier Solana, foreign policy chief of the European Union, and has entrusted the hosting of official dinners and lunches for foreign guests to senior vice foreign ministers.

Experts say Tanaka has been focusing too much on the ministry’s personnel matters and her troubled relations with bureaucrats to pay enough attention to her diplomatic duties.

In an attempt to put the ministry’s bureaucrats under control, Tanaka declared a freeze on all personnel transfers less than two weeks into her job. She also reversed transfers to overseas posts of former heads of the Russian Division and Financial Affairs Division, which had been decided before she took office.

Calling the ministry “pandemonium,” Tanaka publicly criticized Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Kawashima and other senior officials for not following her instructions over personnel matters. She temporarily banned senior officials from entering her office, and also unsuccessfully tried to remove Kawashima from his post.

Professor Tanaka, who was a member of an outside ministry reform panel created in the wake of the embezzlement scandal, said the minister’s attempts to reform operations have so far only produced negative effects.

“It is necessary to correct problems in the ministry’s operations, but it must not be done by sacrificing foreign policy,” the professor said. “She has only caused confusion and distrust within the ministry.”

In recent weeks, criticism has come not only from the opposition camp, but from the foreign minister’s colleagues in the Liberal Democratic Party over her troubled relations with ministry bureaucrats.

However, Tanaka appears confident, saying she has the mandate of voters who support the Koizumi Cabinet’s reform agenda.

“It’s easy to say that I am being selfish and doing whatever I want,” she told reporters earlier this month. “But I am working to fulfill the expectations of 80 percent of the voters (who support) this Cabinet.”

I want to reflect the voices of these people in politics.”

Fumiaki Kubo, professor of international relations at Keio University, said Tanaka’s enthusiasm in trying to take leadership as a politician should be respected.

“It’s good that she is trying to implement reforms as a representative of citizens, because the reform measures would only be lukewarm if they were left in the hands of bureaucrats,” Kubo said.

“That’s why the public is supporting Tanaka.”

Such reforms are scheduled to be released later this month based on recommendations by the outside panel.

Kubo suggested, however, that Tanaka must build better relations with senior officials and make good use of the ministry’s expertise in policy matters.

Inoguchi added that public attention is more focused on how Tanaka wants to rebuild the ministry after the embezzlement scandal, rather than on foreign policy issues.

“People are really angry at the Foreign Ministry with the scandal and they have big hopes for Tanaka,” Inoguchi said.

“They are hoping to see a minister who will not be a puppet of the bureaucracy.”

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