Foreign Minister's Deleted Tweet Draws Attention To Power of Diet Committee

"I have so many things to do but from 9 to 5, I have to sit in on an intensive session on diplomacy and defense, even though there are no questions for me to answer. I wish they would let me do my work instead of making me sit with my arms crossed and eyes closed!"

This is a tweet by Foreign Minister Taro Kono posted on February 14, at the height of budget deliberations in the Diet. It's since been deleted. Why? NHK reporting came upon a certain problem.

February 14: Intensive deliberations were underway at the budget committee of the Lower House of the Diet. The theme was "Diplomacy, security, etc." and lasted from 9 AM to 5 PM, with a lunch break. Ministers relevant to the theme have to be present throughout diet deliberations, which is why Kono was in attendance.

But in reality, the debates were centered on work style reforms. The questions were mainly directed at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Minister of Labor Katsunobu Kato. There were only a few for Kono.

TV coverage showed Kono looking down, with arms crossed. Posts on Twitter drew attention to his posture. "The arms-crossed, eyes-closed Foreign Minister," said one.

Since taking office, Kono has been focusing on overseas diplomatic trips. He was out of Japan for five weekends in a row after the Diet opened in late January.

"Needs to apologize"

Kono's tweet was deleted by the following week. The opposition called it an "arrogant challenge to the committee" and demanded an apology.

We asked Kono about the incident at a later date.

"There were intensive deliberations on diplomacy and defense but, as the relevant minister, I only got around 6 minutes to answer questions," he said. "I couldn't do any work sitting there all day. I was tweeting about that. But I deleted it because the executive committee took up the matter and I didn't want to cause distraction for those involved in the budget deliberations."

The influence of the Diet

The Diet has extremely strong authority over the attendance of cabinet ministers. It can even prevent overseas travel. When the Diet is in session, ministers must get approval to travel abroad. This includes even the Prime Minister.

The wielder of this authority is the Diet Affairs Committee. It manages the operation of each session. Ministers must get approval from the committee for foreign trips while the Diet is in session.

For a trip to be approved, committee members from the ruling and opposition parties must reach a consensus, which is difficult.

Cabinet ministers are in principle required to make themselves available on days when they could be called to the Diet. As a result, Kono has only been traveling overseas on weekends, when the Diet is not in session.

Unrealized trip to Myanmar

Last November, a source close to the Diet Affairs Committee said, "I saw Foreign Minister Kono himself visiting the committee the other day."

At that time, Kono was considering visiting Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar was facing international criticism over the issue of minority Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

As a representative from a traditionally friendly country, Kono was considering a trip to play a mediating role in the issue.

With the Diet in session, Kono turned up at the Diet Affairs Committee himself to try to get the trip approved. But he walked away empty-handed, and the trip had to wait until January.

China increases its influence

"No country in the world binds its ministers as closely to parliament as Japan does." This is a sentiment often repeated by government and ruling party officials.

Behind this comment is the ministers' rivalry with China, which is increasing its global presence, particularly in Asia and Africa.

According to a government statement in January, Kono and his predecessor Fumio Kishida visited 123 countries and territories in five years. During the same period, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited 262.

The Chinese foreign minister never faces questions at the parliament, making it easier to schedule overseas trips. Kono is trying to keep up, but the weekends-only restriction makes things difficult.

Minister jet proposal

With this backdrop, Kono is proposing to introduce a jet dedicated to state ministers. On a recent trip to Washington, he used a chartered jet. He said it allowed him to make the trip and come back to Tokyo by Monday morning, without compromising his Diet duties.

The Foreign Ministry has yet to disclose the number of passengers who took the flight and the cost, citing pending accounting settlement. This could call the cost effectiveness and transparency of the proposal into question.

Diplomacy at home

Kono is also promoting so-called "Omotenashi", or hospitality diplomacy. The goal is to promote diplomacy by entertaining foreign VIPs visiting Japan on weekdays, when Kono is unable to leave due to Diet duties.

There was ample opportunity to push this method earlier in the year. Many foreign dignitaries in South Korea for the PyeongChang Winter Games also visited Japan, and Kono took advantage, hosting dinner parties.

In February, the government broadened the scope of foreign VIPs who could be entertained as official guests, in the hope of making diplomacy while Diet is in session easier.