Japan: Tough-Talking Tanaka

When she came into office in April, everyone knew that Makiko Tanaka would not be your average foreign minister. The 57-year-old politician from Niigata prefecture had gained a reputation as an obachan, a term for middle-aged Japanese women who tend not to mince words. Soon after assuming her post in the government of Junichiro Koizumi, Tanaka showed that she would disappoint neither critics nor admirers. She lashed out at her staff on everything from recent appointments to the state of her office. "Look, there is no decent world map in my room," she said. "No dictionaries. There are no clocks that show me time differences. How in the world could the former foreign ministers work here?"

Nobody ever accused Tanaka of being diplomatic. During her first month in office she canceled a dinner with Argentina's foreign minister and rattled her U.S. ally. She reportedly expressed misgivings about America's missile defense scheme to Italy's prime minister. She's challenged Japan's elitist Foreign Ministry bureaucracy, recalling diplomats from as far away as London--before they even started their new jobs. "Being outspoken seems to be my own nature," she recently told NEWSWEEK. "My old friends tell me that I haven't changed at all even after becoming a politician. They say I was bound to cause trouble."

Tanaka's feistiness has made her the people's darling. Last week in an opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun, her approval rating registered at 65 percent. Her talent for playing to the public seems to suit Tanaka: as the daughter of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, she always lived under public scrutiny. In college her first love was acting and now, it seems, she is relishing her newest role. "Koizumi's high popularity is largely based on Tanaka's," says political analyst Takashi Tachibana. Whenever she is criticized by members of Japan's Diet, the ministry receives a mass of telephone calls and e-mail from her supporters telling her to hang in there. "At least people are interested in foreign policy for a change," said one Foreign Ministry official.

The conservative establishment is appalled by the newcomer, however. The daily Yomiuri Shimbun has labeled Tanaka a "loose cannon." Conservative Liberal Democratic Party politicians are angry that she's trying to forge a more accommodating position with China over the content of Japanese history textbooks regarding atrocities during World War II. She has also ruffled the feathers of ministry officials, one of whom has asserted that his new boss has "psychological problems." When Tanaka explained last month that she blew off a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage because she was "in a state of panic" over the complexity of the U.S.-Japan relationship, even some of her women peers jeered. Some whispered that she might not have the necesssary experience for her job. If the controversies continue, Tanaka may come to be viewed as the mascot of the Koizumi administration--amusing, but without weight. But if she can tame her bureaucracy and learn from them as well, tough-talking Tanaka will wield far more power than any obachan ever did.

The Formidable Women in Koizumi's Life They are Koizumi's Angels. Japan's new prime minister appointed Makiko Tanaka and a record four other women to cabinet posts. They're an experienced and gutsy group, with a reputation for taking tough stands.

Atsuko Toyama, 62, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology minister, is a former museum director and ambassador to Turkey. She was a trailblazer for other women in the Japanese bureaucracy.

Mayumi Moriyama, 73, Justice minister, became Japan's first chief cabinet secretary in 1989. She has challenged the sumo-wrestling establishment to accept girls in youth tournaments.

Chikage Ogi, 67, Transporation minister, is a former musical-revue actress. She likes to lump public works projects into three catagories: "clean," "useless" and "waste of money."

Yoriko Kawaguchi, 60, Environment minister, earned a graduate degree from Yale University. She opposed the United States' decision to drop its commitment to the Kyoto treaty on global warming.

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