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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:02 03/09/2007
July 2001

Reform Approach By Those Who Are Not "Group-Minded"

Nobuhiko SHIMA (Journalist (Shima Network))

Mr. Nobuhiko ShimaTough-Minded Heroes

Juniichiro Koizumi, Shintaro Ishihara, Yasuo Tanaka, Ichiro, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Hideo Nomo, and Hideki Nakata--they all are popular heroes with strong public support in today's Japan. The common characteristic of these popular individuals is that none of them is "group-minded." In fact, they are alike not only in this respect, but also in their tough-mindedness with no fear of any existing authority, strong beliefs, passion, and the will and skills to make their dreams come true.

Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, who has attracted much attention because of her fight with her own ministry, is not group-minded either, and is enjoying very high popularity. Although she has been controversial due to her extraordinary actions and expressions in the Diet, press interviews and elsewhere, she is truly extraordinary in terms of her energy in her lone fight with a group of 5000 elite bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry. She is strongly supported by Japanese women who are saying that "I am inspired and encouraged by her power and fighting spirit even at the age of 57."

In post-war Japan, a kind of "groupism" has been the main engine for economic growth. In their corporate society, Japanese "salary men" are promoted not on a merit basis but rather on the basis of teamwork, socialization at work, and politics within the company. Those who are capable at work but too individualistic and professional are often regarded as eccentric and treated as outsiders.

The situation has been the same with Japan's political circles and bureaucracy. In the last thirty years, the LDP has been dominated by factional and partisan politics, mainly relying on the power of numbers and money, and have failed to present its members as individual politicians for voters. The case in point is policy decision-making within the LDP by the General Council (Sohmu-kai), where unanimity is the rule. Thus, most of the time only compromises, and not reforms or changes, result from unanimous decisions by factional leaders and powerful party members. In the process, radical opinions by young party members are contained and eventually factional and party opinions tend to be adopted.

Big Earthquake for the Foreign Ministry

Bureaucracy in Kasumigaseki may have a stronger sense of egalitarianism and self-preservation instincts than the LDP, if less visibility. Major budgetary reallocation of public funds, demanded by the public, has never been realized due to opposition by ministries, bureaus and sections on the grounds of past performances, and virtually none of the "unique" bureaucrats who attracted public attention has been promoted to the top level at any ministry in the past. Only those who can manage to win a policy for the interest of their own ministry are regarded as capable bureaucrats, even when the policy is not really in the interest of the country.

The Foreign Ministry is probably the most representative of all ministries in that priorities are given to organization, seniority, historical context, past positions expressed in the Diet, etc., and any deviations from those existing frameworks are rejected. There still exists a discriminatory distinction between career and non-career bureaucrats in the ministry, and their foreign policies are always in line with past developments, and are changed only gradually in their own way in case a change is needed. It is impossible for the Foreign Ministry to change its attitude, as the U.S. changed its policies towards China, the Korean Peninsula, and environmental issues, when the Bush administration replaced the Clinton administration. In fact, Foreign Ministry officials have been perplexed by the major policy shift resulting from the change in the U.S. administration, as they follow U.S. policies in foreign relations.

Furthermore, the Foreign Ministry is more conservative than any other ministry in emphasizing its groupism in maintaining orders and preserving organizational interests. In each embassy, the ambassador is an absolute figure and even the ambassador's wife has strong power over other officials' wives, especially in organizing social functions. According to young diplomats, quite a few wives have suffered nervous breakdowns and had to be sent back home, due to the stifling atmosphere and the pyramid-type organization that does not allow individualism. In such an atmosphere there must have been virtually no objections to the way "secret funds" were spent by ambassadors and high-ranking officials, and no disclosure would have been made to the outside even if inappropriate spending had been discovered by inspection.

Above all, what the Foreign Ministry has been trying hard to protect is personnel appointments and ambassador posts for themselves. There once was a time when the public demanded that the ambassador to the U.S. should be selected among private citizens, but the Ministry made an all-out effort to mute those opinions because they thought that would take the highest post away from diplomats and thus lead to low morale for them and even disintegration of their organization.

Therefore, it must have been like a big earthquake for the Foreign Ministry when Foreign Minister Tanaka froze personnel appointments and pointed out the responsibility of some high-ranking officials-including not only the current vice minister but also three previous vice ministers--in connection with the secret fund problem.

For this reason, the conflict between the Foreign Ministry and Minister Tanaka has become much more intense than any conflict between the ministry and the minister in the past. There have been a series of news leaks through various routes to raise doubts about Minister Tanaka's diplomatic ability, political sense and personal character. This has irritated her, and has caused her to devote much of her energy towards the fight with the ministry and its supporters, leading to various criticisms against her tiny mistakes in statements or actions.

This attention on Tanaka must be so nerve-wrecking that an ordinary minister might well resign. But this time, as a miscalculation on the part of the Foreign Ministry, it has turned out that Prime Minister Koizumi has fully supported her by realizing that her resignation would eventually lead to his downfall. Also public support for her has not declined at all. Prime Minster Koizumi has ordered the Foreign Ministry to cooperate with his Cabinet and asked Minister Tanaka to establish mutual trust with Foreign Ministry officials in order to avoid public criticisms against both parties involved, which might eventually be turned to him.

Possibility of Independent Foreign Policy

With the strong support by Prime Minister Koizumi, Minister Tanaka may be said to have won the first round of the fight with the Foreign Ministry. The question is how much change will take place in personnel reassignments after the Summit meetings. The public would become critical if they see any compromise regarding the secret fund problem. It remains to be seen how best to reconcile public demand for the reform of the Foreign Ministry and necessary team work with bureaucrats to formulate Japan's own foreign policy in the right direction. Is Foreign Minister Tanaka going to the extreme without any compromise in her own "Makiko" way?

While the U.S. is emphasizing the alliance relationship with Japan more than ever, they must be curious and interested in the new type of political leaders such as Mr. Koizumi and Ms. Tanaka, who as a team are overwhelmingly supported by the Japanese public. If a new foreign policy team is formed to have frank dialogue with the U.S., that might open up a way of pursuing Japan's "independent foreign policy" in the real sense for the 21st century.

(This is an English translation of the original Japanese article, published in "Ekonomisuto" July 17, 2001)

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