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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #21: November 5, 2001

Fading Hopes for Japanese Leadership in Asia

John de Boer (University of Tokyo)

Japan has long sought a leadership role in Asia. However, according to media reports its hopes are quickly diminishing. There exist a variety of reasons for this. One relates to Japan's fallen economy, the other to regional friction created as a result of PM Koizumi's Yasukuni visit and the history textbook issue. However, the most crucial reason for perishing hopes may be due to the sad state of leadership within Japan itself.

On Monday, an important meeting between the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) nations and Japan, China and Korea will be held. This will be the first such meeting since the 'war on terrorism' began. Japan will have to justify and reassure countries with extreme sensitivity towards the sending of its Self-Defense Forces overseas to aid in the war effort. The situation will be made more difficult with two very populous Islamic nations present, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is certain to be an occasion that will test Japanese leadership abilities.

However, according to Elaine Lies ("Japan's Asia Leadership Hopes Face a Reality Check," Reuters, Nov. 3), Japan is in a very tricky position. Its officials and analysts seem in doubt of Japan's persuasive abilities. A diplomatic commentator, Hisao Iwashima was quoted as saying, "in fact, the best thing might be [for Japan to] try not to exert any leadership at all and just listen instead." Koizumi will have to move carefully.

Unfortunately, Koizumi does not have much of a supporting cast in Makiko Tanaka, Japan's Foreign Minister. She has publicly embarrassed the Japanese government to the extent that she has been barred from representing it at international conferences. The Financial Times reported on November 2 that lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties have forced her to cancel a trip to a Group of Eight meeting in New York (David Ibison, Nov. 2). After missing last month's Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting in Shanghai, this will be the second high-level meeting she will have failed to attend since the attacks on September 11.

Making the situation even more difficult, on November 3, The Japan Times reported that Foreign Minister Tanaka kept the Foreign Minister of Iran, Seyyed Kamal Kharrazi, waiting for 40 minutes while she looked for a ring that she was supposed to wear for the talks with Kharrazi. She was harshly criticized by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda who told a news conference, "in general, it is not appropriate to have a guest waiting as long as half an hour without good reasons." Naoto Kan, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, has urged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to dismiss Tanaka, claiming she is "damaging national interest."

Tanaka's image has preceded her in Singapore as well where the Singapore Straits Times has recorded her yelling 'Idiot! Idiot! Type now what I order! Fool!' to an official who was reluctant to follow her orders as she demanded that the chief of the ministry's personnel section be replaced for failing to keep tickets for her and her husband to attend the Emperor's annual autumn garden party.

Japan has the potential to play an important diplomatic role in Asia however it has come far short of fulfilling this potential in recent years. There are many reasons for this and one of the most obvious is with Japanese politicians. As the Elaine Lies' article indicates, perhaps the first step forward will be for Japan to get its own house in order.


  • Elaine Lies, ""Japan's Asia Leadership Hopes Face a Reality Check," Reuters, November 3, 2001
  • "Tanaka faces fresh hailstorm," The Japan Times, November 3, 2001
  • David Ibison, "Tanaka's political future in doubt after rebuff," Financial Times, November 2, 2001
  • "Tanaka faces criticism for employing 'outsiders'", Singapore Straits Times, November 3, 2001

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