TOKYO, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Japan's once elite Foreign Ministry has fallen on hard times, with an outspoken foreign minister at war with her bureaucrats and the ministry mired in scandal.
Independent, strong-willed Makiko Tanaka, 57, has only been the foreign minister since April but has committed a series of diplomatic gaffes and drawn the ire of her own political party whose Old Guard members are clamoring for her head. They want Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to revamp his cabinet and in the process sack Tanaka.
Last week Diet members, from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition, combined to prevent Tanaka from attending the United Nations session in New York and prevented her from attending a Group of Eight leading industrial nations meeting of foreign ministers.
The lawmakers said Tanaka should stay home and attend important Diet budget sessions. But the move was a clear sign of displeasure with Tanaka, who is popular with the public as a Japanese housewife who speaks her mind and has tried to stand up to Japan's sometimes arrogant bureaucrats.
She is the daughter of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who left office after journalists raised questions of how he had amassed his fortune. Later he was convicted of taking a bribe from the Lockheed Corp., a case that was still under appeal when he died in 1993.
Tanaka's sharp tongue landed her in trouble with the Liberal Democratic Party last year. She was disciplined when she said of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, "He properly said he's the 'king of debt' -- that is why he is a dead duck and deserves to be."
Makiko Tanaka's problems in office include being late for appointments with visiting dignitaries and missing a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage in Tokyo. She had to apologize to the United States for revealing to reporters the secret location of State Department officials shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
She has been frustrated with Foreign Ministry bureaucrats who have tried to block her personnel changes and ambassadorial appointments. She is also upset because the bureaucrats have been slow to clean up the ministry after a series of scandals that have become an international embarrassment.
Her problems with the bureaucrats bobbed up again last week when she discovered that the ministry had received 14 invitations to Emperor Akihito's annual garden party but none was given to her. Clearly outraged, she demanded the resignation of Akitaka Saiki, the personnel division chief. Other bureaucrats said Saiki was not too blame and he remains on the job.
Tanaka has a stronger case against the ministry's top bureaucrats who she says have done little to act in the face of a series of fraud and embezzlement cases. The biggest involves Katsutoshi Matsuo, a former Foreign Ministry official, who pleaded guilty this summer to defrauding the government by padding the bills for expenses of Japanese government officials, including prime ministers, traveling overseas from 1993 to and including 1999. He is accused of bilking the government of about 500 million yen or $4.2 million.
The indictment said Matsuo first tried out his system by overcharging the government $41,000 for a trip Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa made to China in 1994. Prosecutors said he produced fake bills, charging for lavish hotels that host governments provided free to Japanese officials. Authorities became suspicious of Matsuo after he brought a luxury apartment for $667,000 and acquired 15 racehorses.
Since then, another Foreign Ministry official, Akio Asakawa, told Tokyo police he swindled the government of $3.5 million by padding hotel bills for international conferences held in Japan, including the 1995 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC conference in Osaka and the 1993 G-7 conference in Tokyo.
On Nov. 6, two ministry officials pleaded guilty to changes they, along with two transportation company officials, defrauded the government by overcharging for limousines provided officials at the G-8 (G-7 nations plus Russia) summit in Okinawa.
"It's inexcusable as national public service to swindle public money. I deeply apologize," said Hiromu Kobayashi, a former assistant director in the Foreign Ministry's Economic Affairs Bureau.
Prime Minister Koizumi says he has no intention of changing his cabinet but he has come under intense pressure from his political party to ditch his foreign minister.