Japan's Unorthodox New Team ; Powell, Tanaka Meet Today as Some in Asia, West Question Japan's Direction and Loyalties

By Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

Japan's Unorthodox New Team ; Powell, Tanaka Meet Today as Some in Asia, West Question Japan's Direction and Loyalties


Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


With mixed messages being the current specialty of Japan's new government, today's meeting between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the controversial Japanese foreign minister will be closely watched.

Makiko Tanaka, the first woman to serve as Japan's chief diplomat, comes to the US ahead of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit in less than two weeks.

And while both are enjoying sky-high popularity ratings at home, Japan's Asian neighbors are skittish about the prospect of a more nationalistic Japan under its unconventional new prime minister, while the West seems similarly uncertain of where the man with the hip hairdo plans to lead his country.

Since becoming prime minister less than two months ago, Mr. Koizumi has made a string of eyebrow-raising announcements.

He says he will visit Tokyo's Yasakuni shrine, dedicated to Japan's war martyrs, later this summer. Some say the memorial was used in the past to stir up nationalist sentiments, and Japan's neighbors see the shrine as glorifying the country's wartime past.

Koizumi says that Japan will not reverse its decision to approve a middle-school history textbook that glazes over portions of the nation's militaristic history. And he says Japan should change its pacifist Constitution to allow for participation in "collective security," which would present a major departure from the domestic- only Self-Defense Forces Japan has limited itself to for more than half a century.

And at the same time that Koizumi has sent out conservative waves on what are seen as nationalistic, if symbolic, issues, the world has had an equally difficult time reading Ms. Tanaka.

Tanaka refused to meet with US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage when he came here last month to discuss the Bush administration's plans for a national missile defense program, saying she was stressed out and unprepared.

Shortly after, she visited China - the most vociferous opponent of President Bush's decision to explore missile defense possibilities.

Then the Japanese foreign ministry leaked remarks Tanaka allegedly made with the German foreign minister about the need to reassess the US-Japan security alliance, saying that relations between the two countries were at a "turning point" and expressing opposition to US missile defense.

On the most basic level, Koizumi looks keen to please Bush's security realpoliticians in Washington, while Tanaka seems intent to be on the same page as Beijing, hoping to bring along European leaders who are also chilly toward pursuing missile defense for fear it will spark a new global arms race.

Analysts say both Tanaka and Koizumi are still too fuzzy on their own security stratagem for anyone to determine whether there is a real schism between them.

Koizumi the candidate told reporters two months ago that he thought relations with the US should be Japan's No.1 priority; Koizumi the prime minister says he would not rule out opposing US missile-defense proposals outright.

Unsettling questions

What is clear is that the new faces of decisionmaking in Nagata- cho - Tokyo's equivalent of Capitol Hill - are being watched rather warily by their neighbors abroad.

"The one country's objectives which are not clear is Japan. Japan is rewriting its textbooks and it is building up its military capability," says Ron Morse, a political scientist at Reitaku University in Tokyo. "Japan is doing everything that will upset China, Korea, and the region."

"The question in the Bush Administration is, 'Is Japan a loyal ally? Why is it doing this?' " adds Mr. Morse.

It may be motivated by widespread yet amorphous desire to change. Japan has been haunted by a mixture of economic and political malaise, which, until Koizumi's election, consistently filled newspapers with depressing analyses of Tokyo's diminishing status on the world stage. …

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