Makiko Tanaka is appointed to the post of education minister
Her father oversaw the normalization of relations with China 40 years ago
Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a dispute over a group of remote islands
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan reorganized his cabinet ministers on Monday, bringing in a woman with strong links to China amid a smoldering dispute between the two nations over a group of remote islands.
Noda named Makiko Tanaka, whose father oversaw the normalization of relations with China 40 years ago, as education minister – one of string of new appointments.
Tanaka, who served as foreign minister more than 10 years ago under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, returns to the cabinet as Noda tries to manage the fallout from the clash with Beijing over the disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Japan controls and administers the islands, but China says they are an integral part of its territory that Tokyo “stole” in the 19th century. The islands are known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
The Japanese government’s announcement last month of the acquisition of several of the disputed islands from a Japanese family has heightened tensions between the two countries.
Violent anti-Japanese protests have taken place in Chinese cities, and economic ties between Asia’s two largest economies have started to sour. Meanwhile, patrol vessels from the two countries have been frequently locked in tense games of cat and mouse in the waters around the islands after China sent a flotilla of ships to the area.
The appointment Monday of Tanaka to the cabinet may be interpreted as an effort to soothe those tensions by Noda. Her father, Kakuei Tanaka, was prime minister in 1972 when Tokyo and Beijing resumed diplomatic relations decades after Japan’s occupation of large swathes of eastern China in the 1930s and 40s.
She was nonetheless a controversial figure during her time as foreign minister at the start of this century for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the political opponents of Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
Koizumi sacked her in 2002, saying a public dispute between her and her top aides was effectively preventing critical budget bills from passing through parliament.
She once reportedly called the Foreign Ministry a “den of devils, an evil place where conspiracies are plotted.” Her outspokenness earned her bureaucratic enemies but gained her popularity with the Japanese public.
She also contradicted Koizumi’s government policy on relations between China and Taiwan and on a controversial history textbook approved by Tokyo that critics in Asia said whitewashed Japanese war crimes.
It is unclear what influence she will have on diplomatic relations in her role as education minister. Koichiro Gemba will remain as foreign minister under the reshuffle.
The others changes to Noda’s cabinet included the appointment of Koriki Jojima, a senior DPJ lawmaker, as finance minister.