Amy King is a doctoral student at Oxford University working on Sino-Japanese relations.

The official campaign for Japan’s general election began on Tuesday. One issue to have raised some eyebrows in Japan is the move by ex-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, to join the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

In 2001, then LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed Tanaka the first female foreign minister of Japan. Despite widespread popularity among voters, Tanaka’s tenure – from April 2001 to January 2002 – was cut short when Koizumi fired the Foreign Minister over her struggles with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and tensions with Koizumi and older, more conservative members of the LDP. Tanaka was subsequently suspended from the LDP in 2002 for corruption scandals, but was reelected as an independent candidate in 2003 and 2005, and has been loosely allied with the DPJ since 2003.

While Tanaka’s shift to the DPJ is fascinating from a domestic Japanese perspective, her political survival may have more significant foreign policy implications in Northeast Asia. The Tanaka name carries significant weight outside Japan, particularly in China. Makiko Tanaka is the daughter of former Japanese Prime Minister, Kakuei Tanaka, the man responsible for formally recognising the People’s Republic of China in 1972.

Until 1972, Japan recognised the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the legitimate government of China, and it was not until Nixon’s visit to the mainland in 1972 that Japan could bestow diplomatic recognition upon the PRC. Recognition of the PRC was a controversial issue within the LDP during the 1950s and 1960s, and the Party’s factions were firmly split along pro-Taiwan and pro-PRC lines.

Recognising the PRC boosted Kakuei Tanaka's popularity among Japanese voters and the business community. The Prime Minister forged close connections with Chinese political elites as part of the normalisation process, and the Tanaka faction became Beijing’s closest connection to the LDP during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the decline of the Tanaka faction in Japanese politics during the 1990s and the rise of anti-Chinese nationalism in the LDP and Japan, Makiko Tanaka has attempted to continue her father’s pro-China legacy.

While serving as Foreign Minister under Koizumi, Tanaka called for Japan to reduce its security dependence on the US alliance and to build closer ties with China and South Korea. During her tenure, the outspoken Tanaka did not refrain from criticising Koizumi’s controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, was quick to distance Japan from US President George W Bush’s pro-Taiwan statements in 2001, and voiced opposition about Japan’s decision to participate in US-led missile defence.

Understandably popular in the PRC, Tanaka was invited to Beijing in 2002 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the work undertaken by her father to forge closer Sino-Japanese relations. During this visit, Tanaka expressed her desire to act as a bridge between China and Japan.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the DPJ will oust the LDP at the general election. Although it is too soon to tell what role, if any, the former Foreign Minister might play in a DPJ government, the DPJ’s election manifesto already indicates the Party’s rather non-specific plans to build a more cooperative relationship with China. With Makiko Tanaka in the fold, we may begin to see the revival of close personal ties between Chinese and Japanese elites that have been absent in the relationship since the 1970s.

Photo by Flickr user jon.t, used under a Creative Commons license.