Despite the announcement Wednesday of Foreign Ministry reform plans and the lifting Monday of a “freeze” on personnel transfers, the standoff between Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka and senior bureaucrats is showing no signs of abating.

Tanaka publicly blames elite officials of the ministry for leaking information on a series of talks with her overseas counterparts, saying bureaucrats frustrated in the wake of a major embezzlement scandal are blabbing to the media and hurting the national interest.

She is also hinting at the involvement of her rival lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

“I wonder what happened to the bureaucrats’ obligation of confidentiality,” an angry Tanaka said at a news conference Tuesday.

“The bureaucrats are very nervous and losing confidence because of (the scandal) and that frustration is coming toward me in the form of activities that fly in the face of their duties to keep secrets,” she said.

Katsutoshi Matsuo, who for several years headed a ministry division in charge of supporting VIPs’ overseas visits, has been charged with embezzling hundreds of millions of yen from the government’s discretionary funds.

While the ministry has said Matsuo alone was involved in the embezzlement, rumors are rife that other ministry officials were also using the diplomatic funds for dining out and other personal purposes.

Tanaka argues that the ministry is trying to hide information about the discretionary funds, and that the recent leaks must be coming from these officials.

“Not only are they leaking information, but they are leaking false information,” she told reporters Wednesday evening.

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Tanaka has repeatedly denied that she voiced doubts about the U.S. missile defense plan during talks with her Italian counterpart, Lamberto Dini, and Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda indirectly confirmed the media reports, saying Downer voiced concerns on May 29 to former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto over Tanaka’s negative remarks during their meeting the day before.

Downer later denied allegations that he had told Hashimoto that he would convey Tanaka’s remarks to the United States, but did not touch on whether Tanaka had made the reported remarks.

Tanaka criticized Hashimoto and Fukuda, saying “some kind of political move” was also going on behind the information leakage.

She did not elaborate, but her comment was widely taken to mean she believed some members of the LDP’s largest faction, led by Hashimoto, may be manipulating information against her in collusion with some Foreign Ministry bureaucrats backed by the lawmakers.

The Hashimoto faction, which had dominated party affairs for more than a decade, has been relegated to the sidelines of LDP politics since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi defeated Hashimoto in a surprise victory in the LDP presidential election in April.

While Koizumi’s selection of Tanaka as foreign minister in his Cabinet has won popular support, many veteran LDP lawmakers have criticized her bitter confrontation with the Foreign Ministry over the past several weeks.

It has also been alleged that Tanaka hinted to her German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, that Japan needs to reconsider its decades-old security alliance with the U.S. Tanaka reportedly told Fischer that the alliance was “an easy way” for Japan to enjoy security under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Following the media reports, Tanaka told a Diet session that the alliance with the U.S. is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy.

According to a senior ministry official who had access to the talks, Tanaka did mention that Japan was relying too much on the alliance with the U.S., but that she did not say anything about the need for Japan to leave it.

“I never thought her talks with Fischer were problematic,” the official said.

“She was only saying that Japan as a sovereign state made a choice in allying with the U.S. and that Japan should not just take it for granted.”

The official said that while the reports are not completely wrong, the media were taking them out of context to play them up.

While some ministry officials may be leaking information, others voiced concern that this would hurt Japan’s diplomatic credibility if word spread that Tokyo is unable to keep secrets.

“Losing credibility would greatly damage Japan’s diplomacy,” one senior official said.

Under normal procedures, heads of regional divisions decide where to distribute documents on details of ministerial-level talks, including unofficial conversations during luncheons and other occasions, according to ministry officials.

Tanaka’s reported remarks with Dini were made during a luncheon at which a ministry interpreter was taking notes of the conversation.

Depending on the contents, the documents are sent to related ministry bureaus, Japanese embassies, other ministries and the Cabinet secretariat.

While the documents are not usually sent directly to the LDP, politicians have access to them via the Cabinet secretariat, the officials said.

Ensuring confidentiality

Press Secretary Norio Hattori told a news conference Tuesday he was confident that confidentiality is being kept at the ministry.

“We have no evidence to suggest that the information came from the Foreign Ministry,” he said, dismissing a question on whether the ministry intends to conduct a probe into who leaked documents on Tanaka’s talks with her foreign counterparts.

Also Tuesday, Tanaka ordered Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Kawashima to have ministry staff ensure confidentiality in diplomatic affairs.

“The administrative staff take the minister’s words to heart,” Kawashima told a news conference. “Keeping secrets is the lifeline of diplomatic activities.”

Tanaka’s battle with the bureaucrats began only days after she took office in late April, when she declared a freeze on all personnel transfers.

She was furious that senior officials of the ministry sent Russian division head Jiro Kodera to an embassy assignment in Britain despite her instructions to put the transfer on hold.

Kodera’s transfer, which had been decided before Tanaka took the job, was eventually withdrawn and he was reinstated to his old post.

After Koizumi warned her last week that further confrontations with bureaucrats would hurt Japan’s diplomatic interests, Tanaka lifted the freeze on transfers of 18 ambassadors Monday and also of division heads Wednesday.

“The (lifting of the) freeze on personnel transfers was like a barter for information on discretionary funds,” Tanaka told reporters Wednesday, saying she lifted the freeze because she finally obtained information about the use of the controversial funds.

She went on to criticize Kawashima, saying he had ordered ministry officials not to pass on the information to her.

While Tanaka’s standoff with the bureaucrats continues, the details of her talks with her foreign counterparts remain unclear.

The House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs requested Wednesday that detailed records of her diplomatic talks be submitted to a closed meeting of the panel’s board members.

But on Thursday, Tanaka turned down the request, saying that submitting such records is “inappropriate because doing so could undermine trust with our foreign counterparts.”

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