What is powering Japan’s foreign policy? Guest blogger Walter Hamilton

Jun 16, 2013


Could it be they are handing out “macho pills” at the Japanese Foreign Ministry? Has it become de rigueur for the country’s diplomats to browbeat international forums? Are internal divisions within the ministry about to break out into open policy warfare? 

There are at present enough straws in the wind to invite these questions.

The metaphoric “macho pills” might explain the extraordinary outburst by Japan’s Human Rights Ambassador (and former Ambassador to Australia), Hideaki Ueda, during a recent UN committee hearing. He was responding to an African delegate’s criticism of Japan for not allowing lawyers to be present during police interrogations of suspects. As Ueda attempted to explain how his country was among the “most advanced” in this field, there were audible sniggers from unidentified attendees. “Don’t laugh! Why are you laughing?” protested Ueda. “Shut up! Shut up!” (The rant is viewable on YouTube.) Although one may make allowances for the wear-and-tear of spending too much time at UN talkfests, this was an ugly face to bring to a discussion on human rights. It might be best if Mr. Ueda goes off the pills. 

The “macho pills”, meanwhile, are being crunched like sembei crackers over at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo. When a former head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, Hitoshi Tanaka, aired his concern in the press about an apparent shift to the right in foreign policy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave him a shellacking on Facebook. Tanaka, he said, was “not qualified” to talk about diplomacy because he had previously shown a gross lack of judgement when handling the delicate issue of Japanese kidnapped to North Korea. Abe did not hesitate to reveal details of government discussions to which had been privy. 

Reports indicate Abe is about to elevate Akitaka Saiki to the position of Vice Foreign Minister (the ministry’s top bureaucratic role), replacing an appointee who has been in the job only a year. Saiki is another who is well known to Australian diplomats. His elevation will not have been hindered by his previous support for Abe’s tough line on North Korea, a policy area in which Saiki has particular expertise. He is also a former Ambassador to India – a relationship Japan wishes to foster as a counterweight to China. Some reports suggest he takes a hawkish position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute, although that would simply reflect current government policy. The same reports are foreshadowing a larger clean out of positions in the Foreign Ministry to better align policymaking with the views of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. With the vexed question of constitutional change very much in play under the LDP’s leadership, the party and the government will want a unified diplomatic offensive to explain its tampering with the constitution’s pacifist clauses.

The appearance of a ministry undergoing internal ructions – and of some elements within and without resenting the political whip hand – is becoming more of a spectacle day by day.


Walter Hamilton is a former Tokyo Correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the author of  “Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story”.

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