Japan names ex-banker as new foreign minister

TOKYO, March 9, 2011 (AFP) - Japan's centre-left government Wednesday named political blue-blood Takeaki Matsumoto as its new foreign minister, who will have to navigate tricky relations with the United States, China and Russia.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan picked the former banker and great great grandson of Japan's first prime minister because of his "capability, knowledge and to ensure continuity of diplomacy", said Kan's top spokesman Yukio Edano.

Matsumoto, 51, replaces Seiji Maehara, an ambitious politician and outspoken security hawk who resigned this week over a donation scandal, dealing a blow to the embattled Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government.

Japan's new top diplomat, who most recently served as a vice foreign minister, takes the post at a time when his government must deal with a series of diplomatic headaches with key allies and powerful neighbours.

Japan and China, which has just overtaken the island-nation as the world's number two economy, last year fought their most heated diplomatic battle in years, sparked by sea collisions near a disputed island chain.

A series of tense confrontations between their vessels and aircraft has continued in and over the East China Sea, where both Asian giants have competing claims over vast areas, some of them rich in oil and gas deposits.

A territorial dispute is also at the heart of a bitter row that has flared up in recent months between Japan and Russia.

Both countries lay claim to the South Kuril islands, which Soviet forces occupied in the final days of World War II, a dispute that has so far stopped the neighbours from signing a post war peace treaty.

Japan's top security ally since WWII has been its former occupier the United States, but that alliance too has come under strain since the DPJ took power in September 2009, vowing "more equal" ties with Washington.

A quarrel over the relocation of an unpopular US Marine Corps airbase on the southern island of Okinawa helped bring down the DPJ's first premier Yukio Hatoyama and remains an irritant in bilateral relations.

The job of juggling these issues now falls to Matsumoto, great great grandson of Hirofumi Ito, Japan's first premier when the country ended two centuries of self-imposed isolation in the late 1800s.

Matsumoto's father, Juro Matsumoto, was a senior member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which was ousted from power in 2009 after half a century of almost unbroken rule and is now hoping for a comeback.

The new foreign minister, a law graduate of the elite University of Tokyo, first worked as a banker for the Industrial Bank of Japan, which later became part of the Mizuho Financial Group.

He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. Reputed to have wide-ranging policy knowledge, from diplomacy to defence to finance, he previously served as the policy chief of the DPJ in opposition.

Matsumoto will formally take the post after a swearing-in ceremony at the imperial palace at 0900 GMT.

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