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Monday, 26 November, 2001, 14:59 GMT
Japan's controversial foreign minister
Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka at a summit meeting
Makiko Tanaka is Japan's first female foreign minister
By the BBC's Charles Scanlon in Tokyo

Even her most ardent supporters - and there are many of them - would not describe the Japanese Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, as a natural diplomat.

Within days of her appointment to the cabinet in April, she had alienated top officials at the ministry with very public attacks on their competence.

It's an almost unanimous sentiment to get her out of the ministry

Tukuya Tasso, MP
She also pledged to root out corruption in the ministry after a scandal involving the embezzlement of diplomatic slush funds.

Since then the bureaucrats have been fighting back with a relentless series of leaks to the press aimed at showing Mrs Tanaka in the worst possible light.

"I now know this ministry really is a palace of demons, it's worse than I ever imagined," she said in exasperation after a recent row, when officials blocked her efforts to transfer the ministry's head of personnel.

Internal battle

The spectacle of such open conflict in the closed and privileged world of Japanese officialdom has delighted many. But it has also led to fears that the country's diplomacy could be seriously impaired at a crucial moment in world affairs.

Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka in Pakistan, November 2001
The trip to Pakistan passed off without controversy
The daughter of a legendary former Prime Minister, Mrs Tanaka made her reputation as a maverick in the ruling party - openly mocking her colleagues in previous administrations. Her appointment was seen as a direct challenge to the cliques and factions accustomed to presiding over Japanese foreign policy.

Mrs Tanaka has just visited refugee camps in Pakistan and held talks with President Pervez Musharraf. Nothing strange about that. Except it was her first visit overseas since the terror attacks on the United States.

Japan has been trying to play a higher profile in the world, but while European and American officials toured the Middle East and Central Asia, Mrs Tanaka was locked in internal battles within her ministry. When she did propose a trip - to meet other G8 foreign ministers in New York - parliament blocked the request.

Politicians, including many from her own Liberal Democratic party, apparently had doubts about her competence and decided it was best to keep her at home. Their concern was fuelled by stories from her officials that depicted the minister as volatile, imperious and woefully unable to focus on policy.

The press told how she was late for a meeting with the visiting Iranian Foreign Minister because she had lost a ring; how she gave away the secret location of the American cabinet after the 11 September attacks; and how she erupted in fury when she did not receive an invitation to the Emperor's garden party.

The entire political establishment seemed to be turning against her.

"It's not that there's a conspiracy to bring Mrs Tanaka down", said Tukuya Tasso, an MP for the opposition Liberal party. "It's an almost unanimous sentiment to get her out of the ministry."

Public champion

That may be true in the insulated world of bureaucrats and politicians. But among ordinary Japanese, Mrs Tanaka has retained her extraordinary popularity.

Key rings of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka
Mrs Tanaka is popular enough to feature on a key ring
She is seen as a champion of open government, taking on corrupt and arrogant bureaucrats.

The Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, needed her support when he launched an outsider's bid for the party leadership last April.

He took a risk by appointing her to such a high profile ministry, and at times he has made efforts to distance himself from her. He once said the bureaucrats and the minister were as bad as each other.

But Mr Koizumi takes an even bigger risk if he gets rid of her. It would be interpreted as a victory for the system against an administration that has promised to change the way Japan is run.

For the time being Mrs Tanaka's job looks safe. Her quiet and uncontroversial visit to Pakistan may be a sign that she is now prepared to devote more of her time to diplomacy.

See also:

26 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Makiko Tanaka
27 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Powell's love song
26 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
New Japan cabinet causes stir
24 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Japan's leap into the unknown
24 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Junichiro Koizumi
10 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Poor leadership letting Japan down
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