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Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi’s advisory panel on ministry reform came up with its final report in late July. On the basis of the panel’s recommendations, the ministry this month will formulate an action plan on ways of implementing reform. A spate of scandals involving the ministry have prompted calls for reform.

If the action plan turns out to be a patchwork to protect “ministry interests,” the ministry will be unable to restore public confidence in diplomacy, and will face mounting calls from within the governing Liberal Democratic Party to disband the Foreign Ministry.

Kawaguchi, who took up her post in February amid a series of scandals over lawmaker and former LDP member Muneo Suzuki’s intervention into ministry policy, announced a 10-point reform plan for more openness in the foreign service. Since then, the reform panel of outside experts has been considering specifics of the plan. The report deals with ways of restoring trust in the scandal-tainted ministry and does not involve Japan’s diplomatic strategies.

The report made these recommendations, among others:

* The ministry should keep written records of conversations between politicians and bureaucrats to eliminate undue political pressure.

* Twenty percent of the ambassadors should be appointed from outside the ministry, and 20 percent more from among “noncareer-track” ministry officials.

* There should be a thorough review of work related to Japan’s official development assistance, or ODA, to other nations. Consideration should be given to creating an agency to integrate ODA work, which is now divided among a number of ministries and agencies.

The recommendations are likely to shake up Foreign Ministry officials, especially the one advising that 40 percent of the ambassadors be appointed from personnel other than “career” foreign-service officers. At present, almost all of some 120 ambassadors — and all of the envoys to major countries and international organizations — are career foreign-service officers. The proposal would mean cutting about 50 career officials from ambassadorial posts.

Ambassadors, wherever they are posted, conduct diplomatic activities on behalf of Japan and must have high qualifications. They must combine good foreign-language skills with in-depth knowledge of international law, security issues, and economic and financial affairs. In their posts, they are required to build trust-based relations with high-level local officials, gather sensitive information and keep secrets. They must be ready to deal with an international crisis. The hostage situation at the Japanese Embassy in Peru brings the difficulties of an ambassador’s job into sharp focus.

Capable officials — from both within and outside the ministry — should be appointed as ambassadors, including those to major countries. But it would be harmful to Japan’s foreign service to risk appointing unqualified personnel merely to satisfy quotas. Furthermore, quotas could prompt undesirable competition for envoy posts and invite political pressure regarding ambassadorial appointments.

The review of ODA operations is also important. The reform panel’s draft report had called for establishing an aid agency in the Cabinet Office to integrate ODA work, but fierce opposition in the Foreign Ministry forced the panel to delete a reference to the idea. So, the final report simply said consideration should be given to setting up a more desirable organizational structure to integrate ODA operations.

The LDP, in its own proposal for reforming the Foreign Ministry, called for creating an international cooperation agency. Some LDP officials are agitating to revamp the government’s structure next January, two years after the reorganization of the central bureaucracy. This raises the possibility that the proposed creation of an aid agency, along with the review of ODA work, will become a political issue.

A major question for the Foreign Ministry is, can it reform itself? Some officials say it will be impossible to reform a ministry that cannot control itself.

Upon receiving the panel’s recommendations, ministry bureaucrats categorized them as either “possible” or “impossible,” showing a general lack of enthusiasm for them. The ministry, eager to protect its own interests, will be unable to get rid of old habits.

Last month, a group of young reform-minded ministry officials published a report calling for reform “from within.” The report pointed out that Japan’s rigid diplomatic policy remains unchanged since the end of the Cold War, despite changes in the international environment. It said diplomatic activities in some key fields have become so esoteric that only the specialists involved understand them. The report also said lack of coordination between officials’ groups has led to a paucity of policy debate.

Norio Hattori, the outgoing Foreign Ministry press secretary, said in unusually blunt remarks at his last news conference that top officials should make clear that the ministry needs much more than makeshift measures to rebuild diplomacy. He added that the ministry should be reorganized so that it will regain public confidence and fulfill its important responsibility.

The Japanese government has yet to make a decision on how to deal with possible U.S. military action against Iraq that is expected early next year. Clearly the government will be unable to tide over the confusion likely at home and abroad with its traditional pro-U.S. diplomatic stance.

Diplomacy without public trust will be meaningless. It is incumbent on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to move quickly to create a system capable of promoting strategic diplomacy in the new international environment following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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