LONDON — The Japanese Foreign Ministry has been much criticized over the last year. Reforms have been made and more changes are likely. Some of the criticism has been justified, but much is misplaced and some of the proposals for changes are mistaken.

Japanese politicians who criticize the Foreign Ministry should first do some self-reflection. The scandals over the ministry’s secret funds were reprehensible, but what about the scandals over the salaries of secretaries to members of the Diet? How much of the secret funds were used to entertain and assist parliamentarians visiting foreign countries? Can Japanese politicians claim they have taken adequate steps to prevent the malpractices involved in the bid-rigging “dango” system, which still prevails in many construction projects? Have they made adequate efforts to curb the wasteful use of taxpayer funds in building roads and dams that have little or no economic merit? The answer to these questions is, of course, that they have not.

In the case of the Foreign Ministry, the improved methods of supervision and control that have recently been adopted should help prevent further misappropriations of public funds, but parliamentarians should also curb their demands on Japanese missions abroad and not expect to be “nannied,” subsidized and accompanied throughout their visits abroad. Their “study” visits really should include substantial study.

The recent problems in China involving North Korean asylum seekers did not show officials in a favorable light. Indeed, the behavior of one or two consular officials in Shenyang was feeble and reprehensible, but it is easy to criticize when you are not responsible. Would a serious diplomatic spat have arisen with China if the consular officials had fought back? Would the consular officials have been blamed or would they have been supported at home and by the Japanese ambassador in Beijing?

The relationship of Foreign Ministry officials with disgraced former Diet member Muneo Suzuki was, to say the least, unfortunate and regrettable, but Japanese politicians have for years cultivated a coterie of officials in various ministries. Officials know that if they do not play along with such politicians, a discreet telephone call to the personnel department of the ministry from the politician’s office can lead to a transfer to another post and become an obstacle to promotion. Suzuki had been parliamentary vice minister at the Foreign Ministry and was known to officials as a manipulator who if thwarted could turn nasty. Suzuki’s behavior was not particularly exceptional.

The first need is to ensure that approaches by politicians to officials are recorded and reported to the minister’s office. In Britain this would be routine. With the agreement of the minister responsible, officials can meet politicians and brief them about particular issues in which they are interested. Written and oral briefings will naturally be given to politicians, including members of the opposition, visiting foreign countries.

Every ministry requires reorganization from time to time. This should be for practical reasons, not just in response to political pressures. For instance, the proposal to establish a bureau for consular affairs makes a good deal of sense. Japanese are traveling abroad in large numbers, often to unsafe places. They need appropriate consular protection and consular officials need to be trained to provide the right kind of courteous service. The proposed abolition of the Treaties Bureau is probably justified by the fact that agreements and treaties will be negotiated by regional bureaus or specialized bureaus, such as the one responsible for United Nations affairs. The Foreign Ministry is staffed largely by officials trained in law, but they may need experts in international law. The British Foreign Office is able to obtain such expertise from its corps of specialist legal advisers.

Some politicians and the media argue that the Foreign Ministry does not adequately stand up for Japan’s national interests. As I have argued in a recent article, I do not think that this is fair. The national interest needs to be viewed from a long-term perspective. It is not always easy to define where the national interest really lies in particular issues. Certainly all foreign ministries can benefit from an informed debate in the media and by dialogues with various research bodies and think tanks. The Foreign Ministry does work with such organizations, but perhaps the arrangements could be strengthened.

I am very doubtful about the call for 20 percent of ambassadorial posts to be filled by noncareer individuals. This has been described as the main plank of reform both by the foreign minister’s “advisory group on change,” chaired by Yoshihiko Miyauchi of Orix, and by the Liberal Democratic Party. This could seriously damage the morale of the Japanese diplomatic service. It could also lead to the increasing politicization of the service.

It is unlikely that outsiders asked to take up an appointment in the diplomatic service would be willing to go to a Third World hardship post or to a dangerous area, such as the Middle East. Outsiders would only go to relatively comfortable posts. There is also the serious issue of language ability. While there are an increasing number of posts where English is the main foreign language used and there are a growing number of Japanese in all walks of life with adequate English, there are many posts where a knowledge of French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Arabic, to say nothing of many other languages used largely in one country, are essential if an ambassador is to be an effective representative of Japan. Such languages cannot be picked up in a matter of months.

Moreover, the proposal suggests a serious misunderstanding of the nature of an ambassador’s job. He or she needs knowledge and understanding of the way in which politics and economics and, of course, diplomacy are conducted, and must learn quickly to adapt to local ways and customs. He or she must understand international treaties and organizations. If tackled, for instance, about a trade issue and the rules of the World Trade Organization, he or she must be able to respond quickly and intelligently. He or she must be able to make speeches and expound on Japanese policies and culture. How many outsiders have the necessary qualities and qualifications?

Behind this proposal I suspect that there is a misunderstanding about diplomatic life. There are still people who seem to think that the diplomat’s life consists of rounds of cocktail parties and dinners. It does not. Nor is life in many places at all easy. Families often have to be left behind and children suffer from being parted from their parents. Medical and sanitary facilities in some capitals are inadequate and travel is unsafe.

If this proposal is adopted it is inevitable that much of the burden will fall to the number two in the Japanese mission, who is a member of the diplomatic service and knows what has to be done. This is, of course, what happens in most U.S. embassies, where ambassadors are political appointees.

I hope that the Japanese will not allow their resentment against Japanese diplomatic service weaknesses and their misplaced jealousy to persuade them to endorse this mistaken proposal.

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