OSAKA — New Defense Minister Yuriko Koike, 54, is a world traveler fluent in Arabic and English and considered one of the Diet’s leading experts on the Middle East.

A participant at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and in the U.S.-Japan Legislative Exchange Program, American media have dubbed her “Japan’s Condi Rice” and those who follow Japanese politics wonder if she may become Japan’s first female prime minister someday.

But if Koike has charmed many outside Japan with her style, linguistic abilities and knowledge of foreign affairs, she is a more controversial figure inside the country. Hawkish and conservative, Koike has long had close ties to powerful conservative political groups like the Japan Conference, which supports textbooks that whitewash Japan’s historical record, denies or downplays the Nanking Massacre and “comfort women” (wartime sex slave) issues, and pushes education reforms that stress patriotism in schools.

Koike has long been one of Japan’s most outspoken critics of North Korea, and a leading Diet supporter of tough economic sanctions against Kim Jong Il’s regime.

In a 2003 interview with The Japan Times, Koike said she admired John Bolton’s handling of North Korea. Bolton, a leading member of America’s neoconservative movement, was then undersecretary of state for arms control and the U.S. representative to the six-party talks on denuclearizing the North.

But on other issues like Iraq, Koike has sometimes sent conflicting messages, leading to uncertainty as to where she really stands. In the 2003 interview, she called the original American plan, designed by neoconservatives like Bolton, of democratizing the Middle East starting with Iraq “extremely naive” and warned that other countries in the region could be destabilized.

Yet, at the same time, she warned that because of the extreme danger of North Korea to Japan and the need to show America it was a reliable ally, there was no room for debate about whether to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Koike was born in Hyogo Prefecture and raised in the Kansai region. Her father was an oil wholesaler known for his extensive contacts in the Middle East.

Koike shared her father’s interest in the Middle East and studied at Cairo University. She became an anchorwoman for TV Tokyo’s “World Business Satellite” in 1988. She entered politics in 1992, winning a seat in the Upper House from Morihiro Hosokawa’s Japan New Party.

In the beginning of her political career, Koike was a trenchant critic of the Liberal Democratic Party. However, after hopping around several smaller parties, she joined the LDP in 2002, saying it was impossible to change Japan otherwise. Her switch of parties and loyalties drew criticism even from within the LDP.

Koike developed a close relationship with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who appointed her environment minister in 2003 and then minister of state for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs in 2004.

In September 2005, she become the first and most notable of Koizumi’s “assassin” candidates in the Lower House election. She moved to Tokyo and ran on the LDP ticket, defeating a candidate ousted by the party for opposing Koizumi’s efforts to privatize the postal system.

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