Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka backed down Thursday in a feud with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi over personnel changes at the Foreign Ministry, agreeing to replace Japan’s ambassador to the United States, a government source said.

Tanaka agreed to replace Ambassador Shunji Yanai after repeated instructions from Koizumi to relieve him and four other top-ranking diplomats over a series of scandals involving ministry officials, the source said.

She met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence Thursday evening to convey her decision.

Koizumi had called Tanaka earlier in the day, urging the minister to come up with new personnel plans by the end of the day.

The impasse over the personnel issue and Tanaka’s apparent determination to ignore Koizumi’s calls fueled speculation in political circles that the outspoken foreign minister would not be able to avoid being sacked had she remained adamant about Yanai’s post.

Earlier in the week, Koizumi instructed her to remove the four recent vice foreign ministers, including Yanai, from their posts to take responsibility for a series of scandals involving ministry bureaucrats. The other three are Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Kawashima, Ambassador to Britain Sadayuki Hayashi and Japan International Cooperation Agency head Kunihiko Saito. Koizumi also ordered Deputy Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Iimura be replaced.

As of Thursday evening, Koizumi remained optimistic that things would work out, saying he believed Tanaka would soon reverse her rebellious stance.

“In the end, I’m sure (Tanaka) will carry out things in line with my policy,” Koizumi told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

“There is just a little more paperwork left to be done (regarding the personnel changes) and I should not meddle with the matter at this stage,” he said, adding that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda will handle the row.

Koizumi also said Tanaka would not be punished for announcing a personnel reshuffle plan earlier in the day that partly runs contrary to his.

Fukuda, meanwhile, told a regular news conference in the afternoon that he believes the Foreign Ministry would formally accept the Koizumi-led reshuffle plan by the evening.

The prime minister urged Tanaka by telephone Thursday morning to hand in the personnel list by the end of the day, following his earlier instructions. Tanaka replied that she “understood,” ministry sources said.

The open rift between Tanaka and Koizumi is leading to calls among senior Liberal Democratic Party members to sack the foreign minister. “If she refuses to take the prime minister’s instruction, it’s possible that she would be sacked,” one LDP lawmaker said.

In the morning, Tanaka said in a hastily arranged address to all ministry staffers that she would retain Yanai as ambassador to U.S. at least until October, when U.S. President George. W. Bush is to visit Japan. But she said she was willing to sack Kawashima.

“The Koizumi Cabinet places priority on Japan-U.S. relations . . . and I believe it is better to ask the ambassador (Yanai), who has two years’ experience in the post, to handle (bilateral relations) than having a new person do the job,” Tanaka said.

She indicated that Yanai’s retirement after the summit may be appropriate.

In her address, Tanaka openly criticized Kawashima for not accepting blame for the scandals, and added, “The prime minister’s office had instructed me to discuss the personnel matter with the current vice foreign minister, but I want to talk about it with the new vice foreign minister,” she said.

Kawashima has already expressed his intention to resign. Tanaka reportedly wanted to appoint Deputy Foreign Minister Ryozo Kato as Kawashima’s successor, but if Yanai is ultimately removed from his post, Kato is the most likely candidate to become ambassador to the U.S., thereby requiring a third person to fill the vice foreign minister’s post.

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