The fuss surrounding the Diet resignation of former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka has seen Japan and its media at their shallow, group-think, conservative, anti-individualist worst.

The media know, and some admit, that the issue forcing her resignation — her departure from unrealistic Diet rules for paying secretary salaries — is a nonissue currently being used by rightwing expose magazines to embarrass people they do not like (the rightwing disliked Tanaka for her pro-China, anti-Yasukuni and anti-U.S. missile defense views). But that does not stop everyone else from jumping on the scandal bandwagon.

With typical Japanese obsession for fussing over small details while ignoring the main picture, even the more objective commentators manage to harp endlessly on the fine details of the secretary salary issue, while overlooking her very important impact on the hitherto stodgy face of Japanese politics.

True, the commentators, even the rightwing variety, have had to admit her role in attacking the deep-rooted culture of corruption in her ministry and in destroying the stranglehold that former LDP politician Muneo Suzuki (now under indictment for receiving bribes) had imposed on large areas of government aid policy. But they then turn around to insist that all this is negated by her past alleged mishaps and occasional outbursts, all minuscule in comparison.

That the information about the alleged mishaps came mainly from improper leaks by unpunished ministry enemies is ignored. So too is the gross injustice surrounding her earlier dismissal as foreign minister, namely the willingness of her ministry to lie outrageously to hinder her efforts to finger the then all-powerful Suzuki, and the readiness of die-hard conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to go along with those lies.

Adding to the injustice is the fact that previous foreign ministers had in effect presided over ministry corruption and Suzuki power-grabbing without saying a word. They remain objects of respect. One of them — the bland and ineffectual Masahiko Komura — is even considered future prime ministerial material. Only Tanaka is condemned.

We are back to Japan’s strange “tatemae vs. honne” (avowed principles vs. real feelings) dichotomy. In principle, Japan is supposed to condemn corruption, but anyone who tries to expose it ends up being tarred with the same brush as the corrupt: “In any dispute, both sides are at fault,” as the saying goes.

How can Japan hope to have any anticorruption reform with this kind of mentality? The cunning and the cowardly remain silent, and in power. The brave end up on the scrapheap of public opinion, branded as troublemakers opposed to the allegedly cherished virtue of harmony (“wa”).

It’s the same in foreign policy. Stick to the established line and you’re safe, no matter how mud-stained, bankrupt and ultimately dangerous that line might be. Try to design new and more intelligent policies and you are headed for the scrapheap. You, too, have become a troublemaker.

The recent dismissal and demotion of Foreign Ministry officials seeking a sensible “Two Islands” solution to Japan’s ever-festering Northern Territories dispute with Moscow was a classic example. The official reason for their punishments was, unbelievably, “seeking to cause confusion in the ministry.”

To anyone who studies the 50-year-old dispute objectively, the Two Islands solution is the only one possible. This is not a matter of political bias; it is pure common sense. Japan may or may not have a claim to some or all of the islands in dispute. But the historical claim to the Habomais and Shikotan is quite different from the far more complicated claim to the other two territories of Kunashiri and Etorufu.

Tokyo’s 1954 attempt to bundle all the islands together into one rigid package was a highly contrived Cold War move designed to keep Japan-Soviet relations in deadlock by preventing the Habomais-Shikotan solution that Moscow had already agreed to.

Today there is no need for this Cold War relic. Japan should accept the two territories that Moscow still hints it is willing to return, and negotiate separately and on a quite different basis for Kunashiri and Etorufu. The alternative is to spend another 50 years vainly insisting that Japan’s claim to a single-package Four Islands solution is totally justified, and that the freeze on closer economic and diplomatic relations will continue indefinitely until Moscow agrees.

In the late 1990s, the small handful of Russia-cognizant officials in the ministry began to push for this Two Islands solution. Needless to say, they were opposed by the usual phalanx of conservative, Russia-ignorant, stick-in-the-mud, establishment-line officials. But they did manage to persuade people close to two former prime ministers, Keizo Obuchi and Yoshiro Mori, to consider their ideas (the now-notorious Suzuki was also involved). Japan was on the point of making an historic policy shift, one that might well have been endorsed by the present prime minister.

But with the shakeups surrounding Tanaka, the conservatives have been able to stage a comeback. Like Tanaka, the Two Islands-solution people have been punished, not over policy rights and wrongs but for that ultimate of Japanese sins — disturbing the “wa.”

The commentators also accuse Tanaka of something called “performance,” a katakana English word with implications of showy emptiness. What they really mean is that they could not handle the fact that Japan finally had a foreign minister who could speak a foreign language, had a strong, outgoing personality, was willing to say what she thought and was a female to boot.

At a reception hosted by Tanaka, I once had a chance to see that “performance” in action. After a brief, witty speech in fluent English, a long line of foreigners, mainly diplomats, queued up halfway round the room waiting for a chance to talk to her. Each received a friendly smile, a remembered name, an attentive ear and about two to three minutes of her time.

In many cases she was familiar with the problems they wanted to talk about. It was indeed a performance, but not of the empty and showy variety. It was a performance no previous foreign minister of Japan could have even hoped to begin to match.

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