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Corruption at the Foreign Ministry has come to a head following the arrest of two assistant division directors earlier this month on suspicion of breach of trust. Last year, three assistant division directors and a clerk were arrested on suspicion of embezzlement and fraud. Several senior ministry officials have been disciplined for overlooking their subordinates’ wrongdoing and for failing to prevent undue interference in ministry policy by lawmaker Muneo Suzuki.

Former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka once aptly characterized the ministry as a hotbed of corruption. An advisory panel of outside experts appointed by Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, who replaced Tanaka when the latter was dismissed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in February, recently came up with an interim report on ministry reform. Ironically, the day before the report was released, a diplomatic row started between Japan and China over the removal of five North Korean asylum seekers from the grounds of the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang by armed Chinese police.

Japanese diplomats’ inept handling of the affair stirred even stronger demands for ministry reform. The report, which included severe criticism of ministry practices, recommended, among other things, that:

* an investigation be conducted to determine whether rumors are true that the ministry gives priority to hiring relatives of officials;

* the ministry instruct all diplomatic missions overseas to eliminate the pecking order among wives of diplomats;

* officials refrain from addressing each other by title, and greet each other when reporting to work and leaving the office at the end of the day.

The ministry has failed to address these and other problems exposed by books and weekly magazines. A noncareer ministry official, a friend of mine, told me that he was humiliated by a senior diplomat and his wife while working at a Japanese embassy overseas.

The report gave ample space to discrimination between career and noncareer officials. Most career officials eventually rise to an ambassadorial post, while noncareer officials have only a limited chance to do so, the report said. Noncareer officials who become ambassador are appointed to posts in Africa and other “unhealthy” regions.

At ministry headquarters, the report said, the division director and his or her career-track subordinates monopolize power, assisted by noncareer officials. Noncareer officials complain that young, inexperienced career officials check all reports written by them, causing a waste of time. It often takes a long time before the division director reads reports prepared by noncareer officials.

The ministry gives career officials opportunities for language training in English and another language overseas, while limiting noncareer officials’ training to their language specialty. Since English is an international language, noncareer officials should also be allowed to receive training in English.

To encourage enthusiasm toward work among all officials, the ministry should introduce a merit-based promotion system, regardless of their status.

Regarding collusive relations between lawmakers and bureaucrats, the ministry’s annual report, also known as the blue book, said common sense dictates that the ties that existed between disgraced Diet member Muneo Suzuki and ministry officials were intolerable, adding that the ties stirred strong public doubts about the fairness and transparency of government service in general. It called for the establishment of rules of contact between lawmakers and bureaucrats. The issue, which affects the entire government, is said to be under review by the government and the Diet and requires further debate.

In my opinion, lawmakers’ excessive interference in Foreign Ministry affairs could sow confusion in Japanese diplomacy and damage national interests. The ministry should establish strict rules governing this problem. The report also said that, to remove the elitist mentality among some officials, the ministry should make diplomats more conscious of their missions and responsibilities on the basis of a medium-to-long-range vision and strategy. I believe this is the crux of the matter.

In its diplomacy, Japan has always followed the United States and has taken little initiative regarding asylum seekers and refugees. This was evident in the Shenyang incident, in which officials of the Japanese Consulate General did little to help North Korean asylum seekers. Video images showing rough treatment of a North Korean mother and her daughter by Chinese police stirred strong public opinion against China, forcing the Japanese government to take a tougher position in the diplomatic row.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has conducted diplomacy with neither a clear vision nor Western-style support for human rights. This is an issue affecting not just the foreign service but also the entire government.

The report also said the “barrier” between career foreign service officials and officials assigned to the ministry from other government departments should be removed. In the Shenyang incident, video images showed that the Japanese vice consul, who had been assigned to the consulate from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, was the first at the scene of trouble but did little to help the asylum seekers. This raises the suspicion that there was little coordination in the mission regarding ways of dealing with asylum seekers.

Rifts between career diplomats and noncareer foreign service officials, as well as officials assigned from other government departments, could affect diplomatic negotiations. The ministry should expedite reform without waiting for a final report from the advisory panel.

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