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The “shunju” (spring and autumn) column on the first page of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun often contains comments that are right on target. The Jan. 27 column commented on the sometimes arrogant and unwarranted demands made by Japanese politicians on Japanese diplomats in missions abroad.

Some Japanese politicians seem to expect diplomats to act as their personal lackeys when they travel abroad. They often do little more to justify their visits than make brief courtesy calls, and make little or no contribution to “parliamentary diplomacy.” Their main concerns while they are abroad seem to be collecting quantities of presents to distribute in their constituencies and sending hundreds or thousands of postcards to constituents.

Ambassadors are called “excellency,” putting them theoretically on a par with ministers, but in Japanese missions ambassadors and their staffs have to kowtow even to ordinary members of the Diet. If they don’t, their future careers and postings may be prejudiced by complaints to the Minister of Foreign Affairs that “so and so did not pay sufficient respect.”

The writer in the Nihon Keizai thought that the difficult relationship between diplomats and politicians lay behind the scandal concerning the diversion of secret funds. Where, the writer asked, did the funds for the Diet members’ presents come from? There was a need for much greater transparency over the use of these funds.

I sympathize with Japanese diplomats in their dealings with Japanese politicians. All diplomats have similar problems, but, because of cultural differences, the Japanese difficulties are greater than ours. I must confess, however, that one of the greatest benefits I felt on retiring from the diplomatic service was that I no longer had to kowtow to politicians and could say what I liked.

Civil servants are, of course, servants of their government and must conscientiously carry out the policies of their government, but they remain individuals and must be responsible for their actions. If they are asked or expected to do something that is morally wrong, they need to have the courage to refuse even if it puts their job on the line. This is easier said than done and it is often difficult to draw the line. But if they exceed their powers even at the behest of a senior politician, civil servants must expect to answer for their actions. In the inquiry into arms exported from Britain to Iraq some years ago, some civil servants and ministers were found wanting.

On the whole, British ministers and politicians traveling abroad behave reasonably. One convention that is not always adhered to is that politicians do not play party politics when abroad and they defend the British position even if they do not wholly endorse it. Another convention is that ministers should not criticize civil servants in person and in public. I have seen both conventions ignored or abused. One junior minister who visited me in Tokyo criticized both his officials and denigrated Britain in front of Japanese guests. After the incident I drew his attention to the conventions before he went to bed (he was staying with us in the embassy). He never wrote to thank us for our hospitality, but I never heard that he had complained. I suspect he did not do so because he knew that he was in the wrong.

The embassy always did its best for visiting members of Parliament. I thought it important that they should be educated about modern Japan, and we always took care to ensure that they were properly briefed. I also believed that when on visits financed by taxpayers, members of Parliament should use their visits properly, i.e., they should have a full working program. We were ready to entertain them as much as we could, but I did not see it as our job to guide them round the Ginza bars and pay for their drinks. When ministers brought their wives, we naturally had to do what we could to keep them happy and help with shopping, but we did not expect to finance their purchases.

There was not, I found, much to choose between Conservative and Labor visitors. There were some delightful people on both sides of the house. Some, of course, were “four-letter words,” but then there are such people everywhere. Unfortunately politics inevitably attracts more of the power-hungry and the ultra-ambitious than do other walks of life and these qualities do not make for easy relationships with civil servants. The best politicians remain courteous and friendly; the worst are arrogant and rude the world over. Some diplomats can, of course, become pompous and conscious of their own importance (increasingly little these days!). For my part, I always abhorred the title of “excellency.”

The arrogance of some Japanese politicians toward their civil servants has probably increased as a result of the recent reforms of the structure of central government. The feeling among politicians is probably: “At last we are the masters.” Maybe, but they have to remember that they need civil servants to carry out their policies and to provide them with briefings. They also need competent officials who can think through the problems of government and provide them with careful analyses and options. To get the best out of their officials, politicians need to treat them with courtesy and respect where respect is due.

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