Key ambassadorial appointments scheduled for autumn are seen as a victory for Foreign Ministry bureaucrats and a setback for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae, 60, will become ambassador to the United States, while Shinichi Nishimiya, 60, and Koro Bessho, 59, both deputy foreign ministers, will be posted to China and South Korea, respectively.
Sasae will be the first vice foreign minister to serve as the nation's top envoy to the United States in 11 years.
In 2002, a study group on ministry reforms proposed banning the vice foreign minister, the top ministry bureaucrat, from moving on to an ambassadorship.
The reforms were proposed after senior ministry officials were found to have embezzled secret funds for many years.
In 2001, Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka dismissed the vice foreign minister and his three predecessors, including the ambassador to the United States at the time, over the scandal.
The current ambassador to the United States and his immediate predecessor did not serve as vice foreign minister.
Ministry bureaucrats were disgruntled with the reforms.
"If we cannot appoint a former vice foreign minister to the most important post, personnel appointments at the ministry are effectively stalled," said a senior ministry official.
The study group also called for ambassadors with more diverse backgrounds and proposed nominations from outside the ministry as well as "non-career" ministry bureaucrats.
The DPJ appointed Uichiro Niwa as Japan's first ambassador to China from the private sector in 2010, trumpeting its slogan of politicians regaining leadership over bureaucrats. Niwa had served as an adviser at trading house Itochu Corp.
The replacement of Niwa is seen as a dismissal of sorts for his comments over the disputed Senkaku Islands.
He came under fire after saying the Tokyo metropolitan government's plan to buy the islands would cause a grave crisis in Japan-China relations, which contradicts the government position that they are Japanese territory.
"For some time to come, it will be impossible to appoint someone from the private sector as ambassador to a major country," said a senior ministry official.
Sasae, Nishimiya and Bessho are all veteran career diplomats.
The three appointments were largely determined by Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba in consultation with subordinates.
There was no opposition from the prime minister’s office, according to ministry sources.
Nishimiya and Bessho, however, are not particularly well-versed in Chinese and South Korean affairs, respectively. Both studied in Britain as part of their ministry careers.
It remains unclear whether they can help Japan break diplomatic deadlocks with China and South Korea over territorial disputes.
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