Self-confidence and strategy: Japan’s Taro Kono propels the race for the next premiership

Taro Kono announces his candidacy for the party
Taro Kono announces his candidacy for the party's presidential election in Tokyo
FILE PHOTO: Taro Kono, the head of Japan’s vaccination program and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker, attends a news conference as he announces his candidacy for the party’s presidential election in Tokyo, Japan September 10, 2021 declare. REUTERS/Issei Kato

September 13, 2021

by Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – When Japan’s leading contender for prime minister Taro Kono was a high school senior, he asked his father to send him abroad for university, but was flatly refused.

Instead, the elder Kono, a prominent politician in the ruling party, took his son to a reception at the US embassy to prove that his English was not good.

But this move backfired.

Kono wrote in a recent book, “I went around the room and told people in my broken English how I wanted to study abroad, but my father was against it, so I had a problem. “

Everyone said no, he should wait. But that reaction, and perhaps his son’s audacity, somehow reassured the father, and Kono wound up spending four years at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

Now 58, Japan’s Minister of Popular Vaccines is fluent in English and hopes to overcome that initial combination of self-confidence, strategy and stubbornness to become leader and prime minister of the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

In addition to resumes with high-profile portfolios such as foreign affairs and defence, he runs a Twitter feed in two languages ​​and, in a world of stable politicians, speaks fluently, unlike Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

“Kono is a strict communicator, he’s talking,” said Kanagawa University foreign policy expert Corey Wallace.

“He’s always out there, doing press conferences on vaccine rollouts and so on,” Wallace said. “Suga looked like he only communicated when he absolutely had to.”

Kono regularly tops opinion polls as the voter’s choice for the next prime minister, which will help him both rank and file members in the LDP contest, and keep young MPs from their jobs as general elections this year. Worried about keeping.

The image at which Kono can excel can trump policy, said Airo Hino, a professor of political science at Waseda University.

“MPs will certainly choose who they think is better for re-election,” Hino said.

“They are thinking of election posters, and their faces are with the LDP president. This is especially true in urban areas and with the youth.”

social media reach

Kono’s reach has grown on social media, where she has garnered 2.4 million followers on Twitter.

Earlier this year, whimsical posts featuring memes, their lunch or a mask with a dinosaur skull, have moved to promote the vaccine and highlight online policy meetings.

That Kono had made a real connection with people who don’t usually care about politicians sparked an online debate after Twitter blocked some of those who disagreed with him.

But that incident also highlights one of their biggest weaknesses, analysts say.

“He wants you to like him, and he wants to like you, and he wants to engage, but he has a bit of a temper and that can be a liability,” Wallace said.

In 2019, when the foreign minister, Kono, reprimanded the South Korean ambassador during a meeting in front of the cameras, saying he was “extremely rude”.

These memories caused a furore in South Korea, with Kono already stymied by the conservative stance he adopted as a cabinet minister on key policies.

This is in contrast to his father Yohei Kono, the chief cabinet secretary, who in 1993 wrote a historic apology for “comforting women”, a euphemism for those forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

South Korean media has played down its tough stance, and some commentators fear that already strained relations may not improve.

But there’s hope in the house that Kono, whose temperamental nature brings to mind the wildly popular Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, might be able to work.

Analysts say Japan’s handling of the pandemic has mostly been blamed on Suga, sinking his cabinet, while Kono has built an image of working hard on a vaccine rollout.

Japan’s emergency measures recently did little to stop virus transmission in its hospitals, but after a slow start the vaccination rate dropped to slightly more than half, drawing the United States and other G7 countries closer.

Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Population Health Institute at King’s College London, said, “They … overcame all the hurdles and bureaucratic pretexts specially created by the Ministry of Health, which have organized municipal vaccination in Fukushima Prefecture, north of Tokyo. Directed.

“I think he is the only candidate who can challenge the status quo.”

But first Kono must win, which means he must overcome the party elders’ deep-seated fear that he may be difficult to control.

“This is not to say that Kono is completely against what the party wants to do,” Wallace said. “But he will be his own prime minister, one way or another.”

(Additional reporting by Joo-Min Park and Rocky Swift; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)


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