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Japan taps new envoys to US, South Korea and China

Publication Date : 21-08-2012


Japan is trying to rebuild diplomatic ties in the Asia-Pacific by appointing vice ministerial-level officials as envoys to the three countries.


Japan plans to appoint Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae as ambassador to the United States and name Koro Bessho, deputy foreign minister, as ambassador to South Korea, to rebuild increasingly strained bilateral relations, according to sources.

Sasae will replace Ichiro Fujisaki and Bessho will take over from Masatoshi Muto.

Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary Chikao Kawai is expected to succeed Sasae. The appointments will be endorsed by the Cabinet after the current Diet session ends on Sept. 8, sources said during the weekend.

The government also plans to replace Uichiro Niwa, the ambassador to China, who was appointed to the position from the private sector, after the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Japan and China on Sept. 29.

It is highly unusual for the ambassadors of three key countries to be replaced at once.

The last vice foreign minister to be appointed as US ambassador was Shunji Yanai, who left the post in 2001.

Sasae, 60, joined the ministry in 1974, and was the chief of the Economic Affairs Bureau and also the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.

Japan faces a growing number of issues with the United States, including the planned relocation of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station from Ginowan to the Henoko area of Nago, both in Okinawa Prefecture, and the deployment of the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, a new US military transport plane, to Futenma Air Station.

Sasae is thought to be appropriate for the job because he is well versed in these issues.

The change of the ambassador to South Korea is believed to be aimed at improving the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Tokyo and Seoul. Tensions have risen in the wake of the recent visit by South Korean President Lee Myung Bak to the Takeshima islands in Shimane Prefecture and his statement that the Emperor must apologise to victims of Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula before visiting South Korea.

Bessho, 59, joined the ministry in 1975. He was an administrative secretary to then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for 5-1/2 years and the ministry's Foreign Policy Bureau chief.

Kawai also joined the ministry in 1975, and was minister to the United States, chief of the North American Affairs Bureau and head of the Foreign Policy Bureau.

Akitaka Saiki, the ambassador to India, will succeed Bessho as deputy foreign minister. Saiki was chief of the ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau and oversaw working-level negotiations with North Korea over the abduction of Japanese.

Shinichi Nishimiya, deputy foreign minister, who will become the ambassador to China, is expected to be succeeded by Koji Tsuruoka, the head of the ministry's Foreign Policy Bureau.

Rebuilding diplomatic options

The government is believed to be trying to rebuild diplomatic ties in the Asia-Pacific region by appointing vice ministerial-level officials as ambassadors to the three countries.

Government sources say the decision was made to appoint Sasae as ambassador to the US to get the right person for the job.

Japan-US relations have been disrupted since the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration took office in 2009, during which time the relocation of Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture has become a contentious issue.

As Washington is reviewing its strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, the government has judged Sasae, who is well versed also in Chinese and North Korean affairs, as a suitable candidate that will help Japan to rebuild trust with the United States.

While ambassador positions were once filled by Foreign Ministry officials, this practice came into question after there were revelations in 2001 about the misuse of diplomatic funds. For the last 11 years, no vice foreign ministers have been appointed to the post of ambassador because of the scandal.

However, the new appointment will change this.

There are intensifying territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu in Chinese) and South Korea over the Takeshima islands. The new ambassadors will be put to the test as they attempt to solve these issues.


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