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Taking bold steps to rebuild the Foreign Ministry after a series of scandals involving diplomats is the top priority for the new head of the bureaucracy, Vice Foreign Minister Yoshiji Nogami.

“We must take every step we can as soon as possible . . . including changing accounting procedures, changing the mind-set of ministry staff and stepping up inspection systems,” Nogami said in an interview Friday.

Nogami, 59, the former deputy foreign minister in charge of economic affairs, said it is embarrassing that the ministry is being criticized for undermining Japan’s diplomacy due to the scandals and infighting with its minister.

“As professional diplomats, getting that kind of criticism itself is embarrassing,” he said. “We must regain our pride as professionals and do our job.”

Nogami, who served as the head of the Economic Affairs Bureau and ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is an expert on economic affairs and known to be a tough negotiator. He also served as the “sherpa” — the prime minister’s representative — in the last two Group of Eight summits.

Weeks of standoff between Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi over senior ministry personnel led to Nogami’s appointment as the new top diplomat Friday. Tanaka had been pushing another former deputy foreign minister, Ryozo Kato, who is to become ambassador to the U.S.

“To be honest, I wondered why I should be the vice foreign minister,” he said. “But now that I am one, I must do my best.”

Another urgent task is to improve soured relations with China and South Korea after a row over a contentious history textbook and Koizumi’s plan to visit Yasukuni shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals among the nation’s war dead.

Nogami said Japan must keep explaining its position on its modern history with its Asian neighbors, while trying to strengthen ties through extensive economic relations.

“The Koizumi diplomacy has so far focused on building ties with the United States and Europe, but it is now time to build a foundation for improving relations with Asian countries,” he said.

Nogami declined to comment on Koizumi’s planned visit to Yasukuni, saying the prime minister is now thinking deeply about the matter.

Regarding the dispute with Russia over saury fishing, Nogami said the government must make it clear that Moscow’s granting of fishing rights to third countries is a territorial problem, not simply a commercial matter.

Russia has granted fishing rights to South Korea, North Korea and Ukraine to fish in waters around the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido claimed by Japan.

“It’s a matter of Japan’s sovereignty over the four northern islands and we must keep telling them about it,” Nogami said.

Nogami, who has a British wife and three sons, has been a close friend of former Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Kawashima — the two were classmates at the prestigious Hibiya High School and Tokyo University.

Kawashima said he has the greatest trust in Nogami as his successor.

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