Tanaka Dismissal: Month One Analysis
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
This comment originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Fourm" (http://lists.nbr.org/japanforum) on February 28, 2002: posted here with the author's permission.
The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once observed that a week was a long time in politics. This comment must have seemed particularly poignant to Prime Minister Koizumi as he watched his approval ratings nose-dive in the initial seven days following his surprise dismissal of the popular foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka. One month later, the aftershocks of this unexpected move are still powerfully shaking the political landscape and threatening the Koizumi Cabinet. Despite repeated claims by the Prime Minister that the Tanaka sacking was justified, subsequent events have undermined his position.
The real problem for the Koizumi administration is Muneo Suzuki who was instrumental in the Tanaka dismissal. Diet questioning led to the uncovering of a whole new set of scandals involving Suzuki. This reinforced the idea that Tanaka was right in trying to fight his influence and Koizumi was wrong to sack her for it. This development is extremely bad news for the PM, because it raises doubts about his reformist credentials. If Koizumi is a reformer, why did he block, then sack the one person who seemed to be trying to actually carry out some genuine reforms?
The LDP have decided to dump Suzuki in a damage limitation exercise. Having seen Suzuki crucified in the media for his part in toppling Tanaka, most LDP grandees have refrained from openly attacking her. However, with new testimony due before the Diet soon, the Tanaka-Suzuki crisis may still provide more political capital for the opposition parties.
The public appear to be firmly behind Tanaka whose reputation has been greatly enhanced by the affair. If anything, the sacking appears to have coated her in Teflon which now makes Tanaka a deadly opponent for Koizumi. Unlike most political intrigues, the public have shown immense interest in this spat. When Tanaka appeared before the Diet, record numbers of people watched her evidence live on TV. Even if you missed this, it was continually reshown on the popular morning chat shows whose semi-celebrity hosts have now transformed Tanaka into a cross between Joan of Arc and Margaret Thatcher. Koizumi has taken a serious pounding in these kind of shows.
This saga looks set to rage in the popular media, outside the control of the usual corridors of Japanese political power. As such, the end of this epic tale is highly unpredictable and is sure to give the Prime Minister further trouble. As his political opponents on all sides circle over head, Koizumi must regret sacking Tanaka. It is a miscalculation that could ultimately cost him his job.