Kyoto - Swashbuckling is not a word associated with Japanese ministers, but if any member of the present cabinet might earn the accolade, it would be Hiroshi Oki. In 1987, he was sent to the Philippines where a Japanese expatriate businessman had been taken hostage. In the past, such crimes have ended in bloodshed or humiliating ransoms. But Mr Oki avoided both and after an intense round of discreet diplomacy he returned to Japan a hero.
Ten years on, as Japan's environment minister, he begins the job today of chairing the UN environment conference on climate change. It is a task that makes negotiating with Filipino kidnappers look easy by comparison. The official name of this month's gathering is the Third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - and its name is one of the least complicated things about it.
Representatives of 160 UN member states over 10 days will try to reach an agreement on reducing greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, which cause global warning.
And almost every participant in the conference is giving Mr Oki a headache. The EU wants a 15 per cent reduction from the 1990 level by 2015; Australia, a huge exporter of coal, wants no reduction. The United States, unwilling to compromise over "American lifestyles", tends to side with Australia, while the Alliance of Small Island States, fearful of rising seas and sinking coastlines, seeks the most radical adjustment of all. In the middle is Japan.
Apart from global warning, Japan has good reasons to want COP3 to be a big success. As an economic superpower, Japan is impatient for political responsibilities to match its wealth. Japanese troops are participating in overseas peace- keeping operations; Tokyo is pressing for a seat on the UN Security Council. After decades living down the disgrace of the Second World War, Japan aspires to be "a normal country", says the opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, the kind that can show decisive leadership at a big international conference.
But Tokyo's record on decision-making is poor. When the international community asked it to help in the Gulf War, Tokyo took weeks of divisive debate to agree on its contribution, which turned out to consist only of a large cheque. Japanese decision-making works by consensus, achieved over long negotiations. With only 10 days until the end of COP3, and few signs of compromise by the participants, time is running out.
From the point of view of the environmentalists and more radical European participants, the omens are not good. Japan has moved closer to the American position, with a set of proposals that have become ever feebler as the conference approaches. Originally, Japan proposed a 5 per cent reduction in 1990 emission levels. Now that is regarded as a "base reduction rate" in calculating "country by country reductions". It now turns out that Japan's actual quota reduction might be half a per cent. To be fair to Japan, the political system leaves the bureaucrats with little freedom of movement. Relations between politicians and big business are closer than in most industrialised democracies.
As an island nation with few natural resources of its own, perched on the edge of an unstable continent, the Japanese feel they are uniquely vulnerable over energy and the security of supplies. Japan is a wasteful country, with a poor record on recycling. The national mania for novelty means functional household appliances are routinely thrown out in favour of new ones.
However, as a producer of greenhouse gases, Japan's performance compares favourably with that of the United Kingdom; in 1994, per capita emissions of CO2 were 2.43 tonnes compared with 2.58 in Britain.
The significant factor may be Japan's relationship with the United States, its military defender, biggest commercial market and closest ally. Japan has more to lose by upsetting Washington than by upsetting the Europeans. But the conference will only be a success if all sides are allowed some formula for claiming victory. That will be a struggle for Mr Oki.Reuse content