Koizumi sacks Foreign Minister over squabble with civil servants

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The Independent Online

Japan's popular female Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, was abruptly sacked yesterday, days after publicly breaking down in tears over a long-running feud with her own civil servants.

The flamboyant and outspoken Ms Tanaka, 57, has consistently been ranked the most popular minister in Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet for her promises to shake up the political status quo and root out sleaze and corruption.

But her squabble with senior colleagues over a conference on aid to Afghanistan drew the wrath of the Prime Minister, who blamed it for derailing important parliamentary votes and delaying the passage of a crucial supplementary budget intended to boost the ailing Japanese economy.

After a tearful outburst by the Foreign Minister last week, Mr Koizumi lost his temper, saying tears were "a woman's most powerful weapon". Mr Koizumi, criticised for dithering when he failed to intervene in the dispute, took the surprise decision to sack his former ally – and some believe the woman who made him such a popular leader – just minutes after the lower house of parliament passed the supplementary budget. He also sacked Yoshiji Nogami, the most senior Foreign Ministry official, and removed a leading MP, Muneo Suzuki, from his post at the head of an influential parliamentary committee.

Ms Tanaka'sdismissal ends a roller-coaster nine months in the Foreign Ministry. Within weeks of her appointment she was doing the unthinkable. She publicly lambasted the officials who ran her department, banning some from her presence, snubbed visiting diplomats and upset the American government with blunt criticism of the "Son of Star Wars" missile defence programme and President George Bush.

Her shocked officials, used to decades of having foreign ministers known only for their blandness, and aghast at her determination to clean up the ministry, retaliated by leaking details of her more undiplomatic utterances to the press.

The row that sealed Ms Tanaka's fate flared after she accused Foreign Ministry colleagues and Mr Suzuki of barring a number of aid agencies from last week's Tokyo conference on Afghan reconstruction on the grounds that they had criticised government policy. The officials accused her of lying. In frustration, she wept openly.

While this may have endeared her to the public, Ms Tanaka's feuds had been seen as distracting Mr Koizumi as he struggles to keep Japan from sinking deeper into an economic morass and break the stranglehold of conservatives within his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr Koizumi, perhaps aware that the sacking could alienate him from public opinion, summoned a late-night news conference to explain his decision. He said: "Minister Tanaka's unique character has attracted the attention of a lot of citizens. But as the situation turned from the Foreign Ministry's internal affairs to an issue for the entire government, and thus a problem for parliamentary deliberations, I am feeling responsible."

He said it was too early to discuss a successor. In the meantime, Mr Koizumi himself is expected to take over the foreign minister's portfolio.