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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 17, 2001

Japan's reform lightning rod must stay

By Thomas Plate

The ever-dashing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may be enjoying the honeymoon of all honeymoons in Japan. But getting no such free ride is his feisty foreign minister.

Makiko Tanaka is getting beaten up by peers, pounded by a press feeding off of opposition leaks, excoriated by envious politicians (who haven't yet laid glove one on Koizumi) and knocked even by some foreign governments, including Washington, which would just love it if this independent-minded official would board the next bullet train to Timbuktu.

That would be a tragedy, however: Koizumi's foreign minister is in fact nothing less than a vital symbol of the new, emerging Japan.

Of course, the fact that Makiko Tanaka is a woman — and, in fact, the kind of woman who regularly likes to speak her mind — has nothing whatsoever to do with all the heat. Nothing at all.

So now Tanaka is saddled with something like the controversial image Hillary Clinton had during husband Bill's first term. She's smart (a graduate of ultra-prestigious Waseda University), she's intelligently (if sometimes overly) outspoken, she attacks the Tokyo establishment with relish, and she is the daughter of the late Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary prime minister and consummate political insider who engineered Japan's normalization of ties with Beijing in 1972 before having to resign over what was then delicately described as financial malfeasance (i.e., outright corruption).

In short, Japan's new foreign minister is the powerful, unapologetic woman whom a lot of men —and some women — just love to hate.

Behind the scenes, sadly, the Bush administration, which came to power calling for a more assertive, independent Japan, has quietly jumped on the anti-Tanaka bandwagon. Washington prefers its Japanese foreign ministers to be subservient, soft-spoken and predictable — sort of like happy housewives with the lot of taking out the (American) garbage.

Not Tanaka. She is the undiplomatic diplomat: She doesn't much like Bush's missile-defense vision, knocks Washington's unilateral abrogation of the Kyoto Accords and wants the United States to adapt a lower profile at the gargantuan American military base in Okinawa.

Many foreign policy experts in America as well as Asia agree with Tanaka, but to listen to some of the Washington whispering, you'd think she was the second coming of Tokyo Rose. So she drains a lot of heat off Koizumi, though it is no test of either her integrity or resilience to do so.

Indeed, if Tanaka were an opera, she'd be the happily hysterical Puccini third act: Inheriting a major financial scandal in the elite Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she will not sweep it under the rug, as many in the ministry prefer, wanting instead to punish the wrongdoers who embezzled public funds.

Imagine that — insisting on clean government!

Such brash populism makes Tanaka a winner with the public, though not with the old-boy network, which loathes her rough-edged style. But times must be changing in Japan, because in the old days, not even a famous former prime minister's daughter could have even aspired to be foreign minister, much less remain FM in the face of Washington's glare, so sexist has been Japanese politics.

But now Tanaka might just prove the key to Koizumi's monumental, uphill struggle to jump-start Japan's reform. ''While there is near unanimity about whatever Koizumi wants,'' opines a well-placed Japanese diplomat, ''he must replace the old dead guys who dominate Japanese politics, and Ms. Tanaka is, at a minimum, a useful weapon in this process.''

So let the old dinosaurs of the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party rant and rave about her. And let their hack allies in the establishment media do the dirty work with their unflattering press coverage. Tanaka has the Japanese public on her side and soon may also have the backing of new Democratic committee chairs in the U.S. Senate, especially given her known misgivings about Bush's Asia policies.

Before long, this doughty daughter of a political legend may wind up helping matinee-idol Koizumi arrest Japan's downhill slide.

The PM was brilliant to have put this human lightning rod in his cabinet; he should now resist all the pressure, from abroad as well as at home, to sack her.

Thomas Plate, a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser and The South China Morning Post, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. His Web site is at www.asiamedia.ucla.edu.