In Japan, a tussle at the top over maverick foreign minister

Parliament sabotages chief diplomat's trip to two key international meetings Sunday.

While other foreign ministers from around the world are headed to two key international meetings, Japan's Makiko Tanaka will be sitting in Tokyo, sidelined by a power struggle with her boss that could spell trouble for the country's ruling party.

To critics, Mrs. Tanaka is erratic - and a troublemaker. But supporters hail her as a reformer who challenges Japan's good-ol'-boy network at the foreign ministry. While many of the country's opinion-makers suggest Tanaka is unfit to represent the country in international affairs, others say she is the victim of a campaign to push her from office through a barrage of leaks aimed at capsizing her political career.

The big question is whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will have Tanaka replaced. If he forces her from office, he risks losing supporters along with the woman often ranked as Japan's most popular politician.

"Koizumi has been distancing himself from Tanaka in last few weeks," says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. "He's not necessarily standing by Tanaka, but now that he's under heavy pressure to fire her, it's very difficult to do that. At the same time, if he insists on keeping her and she causes further problems, his cabinet is going to be destabilized quite a bit."

When he leaped to the country's top position just over half a year ago, Mr. Koizumi had Tanaka to thank, in part. Her public appeal helped draw support from rank-and-file members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Koizumi rewarded her by giving her the nation's second-most senior position. But now, many say Tanaka has become a liability for Koizumi. Recent newspapers have been filled with embarrassing episodes, from a tiff over not receiving an invitation to an imperial garden party to a failed attempt to dismiss the ministry's head of personnel. Two of the country's major papers have suggested that Koizumi dismiss Tanaka. Bowing to the critics, Koizumi decided this week not to interfere with the Japanese parliament's refusal to let Tanaka speak at Sunday's United Nations' General Assembly meeting in New York. Tanaka will also miss out that day on the Group of Eight (G-8) foreign ministerial meeting; instead, the deputy foreign minister will represent Japan.

Tanaka's frank manner may partly explain why her tenure as foreign minister seems to be in a permanent state of crisis. She entered the job six months ago with the stated intention of challenging the system and cleaning up a corruption-filled ministry - not easy tasks in a country where subtlety is as important as substance. For example, she is trying to erase the two-tiered system that distinguishes between career diplomats, who soar to plum positions after passing a test at the start of their careers, and non-career diplomats, who toil away at the ministry for years without being considered for more important positions.

Many here say that Tanaka's foes are trying to take advantage of her inexperience as minister to paint her as unflatteringly as possible.

"These are not foreign policy matters. This is bureaucrats versus politicians," says Taro Kono, one of a group of progressive young legislators in the LDP. "Mrs. Tanaka wants to go right to the core and to change the system all the way through, and bureaucrats across the board are really fearful."

For years, her position has been treated as a way station on the road to the prime minister's office, and policy was the reserve of the ministry's long-term elites. Today, the standoff between Tanaka and the bureaucrats is heightened by Sept. 11 and Japan's struggle to define its role in the war on terror.

"Among my colleagues, no serious scholars support Tanaka, simply because she doesn't know much about Japanese foreign policy," says Professor Yasunari Sone, a political scientist at Keio University.

The public views Tanaka differently. A phone poll in August by Kyodo News found that 76.9 percent of respondents approved of her performance, primarily because of her enthusiasm for reforming the foreign ministry. "If she is ruined, that is, politically ... the popularity [of this government] among the people will decline," says Setsu Kobayashi, a law professor and member of her private advisory council.

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