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Inside Japanese politics

Fuel to the fire: Japan and South Korea split on Tokyo’s new envoy

Seoul sees Tomita posting as a 'downgrade,' but Tokyo thinks his experience is a good fit

Koji Tomita will be Japan's next ambassador to South Korea, but Seoul is not entirely pleased with the choice. (Nikkei montage/photo courtesy of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

TOKYO -- Koji Tomita, a 38-year veteran of Japan's diplomatic corps, received a cool reception in Seoul when news broke in August that he would be the next Japanese ambassador to South Korea.

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Tomita did not serve as senior deputy minister for foreign affairs, the number-two position in Tokyo for career diplomats. 

South Korean newspaper Korea JoongAng Daily quoted a diplomatic source as saying that Tomita was of a lower rank compared to other candidates for the job. Another daily newspaper, the Seoul Shinmun called the appointment a "downgrade" by Tokyo of South Korea's importance, based on his career history.

But Japanese officials see Tomita's appointment in a different light. He has held positions that have focused on security and intelligence, important fields of expertise on the divided Korean Peninsula. His tenure in the foreign service is longer than its current top official Vice Minister Takeo Akiba.

"Tomita seems to be a well-qualified ambassador to South Korea, as his time as ambassador to Israel means he has worked with an important political, economic, and security partner," said Tetsuo Kotani, an associate professor at Meikai University who focuses on security issues. "He was also a special ambassador in charge of the G-20 summit in Osaka, which was very successful."

Koji Tomita speaks at a cybersecurity event in Israel in 2016. Tomita was Japan's ambassador to Israel until last year.   © Kyodo

Relations between Japan and South Korea are at their lowest point in decades. The South Korean Supreme Court issued a series of rulings last October ordering Japanese companies to pay reparations to workers forced into labor during Japan's colonial rule between 1910 and 1945. Tokyo maintains that the issue was settled by the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries.

Relations suffered a serious blow in July when Tokyo tightened export controls on chemicals used in manufacturing semiconductors and display screens, major segments of the South Korean economy. Seoul responded the next month by declaring it would end a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact, despite pressure not to from the U.S., a close ally of both countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has told people close to him that he does not expect the situation to improve for at least the next five years.

With relations hitting such a low, some in Seoul regard the decision to send Tomita, rather than a high-ranking South Korea specialist, as a slight. Officials in Tokyo contend that is not the case. Naming an envoy to South Korea who has never been senior deputy minister is not unique: Only six of Japan's 19 ambassadors to Seoul have previously held the position.

And although he has not climbed as high as some of his predecessors, Tomita's experience in security is valuable in a region fraught with tension. He has worked as director of the Foreign Ministry's national security division, where he played key roles in major decisions, such as deploying Japan's Self-Defense Forces overseas.

Tomita was the Japanese ambassador to Israel from 2016 to 2018, an increasingly important post as the Abe administration strengthens Japan's intelligence-sharing framework.

He also held the No. 2 two spot at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Tokyo officials thought sending an ambassador with experience in the U.S. to Seoul, where left-leaning administrations are often wary of Washington, was an added bonus.

Many within the ministry believed Tomita was the right choice, as he served in the embassy in Seoul as director of political affairs early in his career.

The decision to send Tomita to Seoul was in part influenced by the way elite officials advance in Japan's Foreign Ministry, seen above. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

Tokyo must also consider the hierarchy in the Foreign Ministry. Upon joining most ministries, Japanese bureaucrats race to climb the ranks against colleagues who entered the same year. When one becomes vice minister, the top unelected post, peers usually retire.

At the Foreign Ministry, ambassadorships offer an outlet for older diplomats who do not reach the top. After several postings, some ambassadors are more senior than the vice minister in Tokyo. The ambassador to the U.S., Shinsuke Sugiyama, served as vice minister before moving to his current post.

These veteran diplomats often hold significant clout within the ministry, so vice ministers have to handle their postings carefully. They are often sent to vacant or soon-to-be empty ambassadorships, like the current South Korean post.

But some positions demand specialists and are not a good fit for these experienced envoys. The Japanese representative in China, for example, must be well-versed in Chinese affairs and possess a wide network of connections to be effective.

For South Korea, geographic proximity has traditionally meant Japanese envoys return home for briefings more often, with policy decided in Tokyo.

Since the end of World War II, there has only been one Korea specialist who has served as ambassador to South Korea, and he was unable to significantly improve relations. That former ambassador now often takes a hard line on South Korea when discussing Japan's foreign policy.

Some in Seoul were hoping South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon's meeting with Abe on the sidelines of Emperor Naruhito's enthronement would lay the groundwork for a breakthrough, but Abe showed no signs of compromise.

South Korea is still arranging bilateral meetings for President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bangkok, but nothing indicates that he will meet with Abe.

Tensions between the two countries are still high, so it is easy to misinterpret motives. In the case of Tomita, Tokyo just thought he was the best man for the job.

Inside Japanese Politics is the Nikkei Asian Review's regular column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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