Taro Kono, Japan’s Most Popular Prime Minister Candidate, Far From A Shoo-In

TOKYO – If popularity was the deciding factor, there would clearly be a frontrunner to become the next prime minister of Japan.

Polls have found that the public favors Taro Kono, the cabinet minister overseeing the deployment of the coronavirus vaccine in Japan, at least two to one in the race to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party – which in fact , is the race to become Prime Minister. His Twitter follows by 2.4 million dwarves those of his three rivals combined.

But behind the scenes where Japanese political decisions are made, Mr. Kono, 58, is not as popular. His reputation as the most outspoken Liberal Democrat maverick and his leftist views on social issues put him at odds with the party’s former conservatives.

These people will have considerable influence on Wednesday as the Liberal Democrats choose a successor to Yoshihide Suga, the current prime minister and leader of the unpopular party, who said this month he would step down. Whoever takes his place will lead the party to general elections to be held by the end of November.

In the last party leadership elections, unity made the winner a fatality. But this time around, the political haggling seemed at times at odds with popular sentiment, even as the public expressed dissatisfaction with the party’s leadership on the pandemic and the economy. This disconnect partly reflects the complacency of the Liberal Democrats, who have been in power for a few years since 1955 and appear convinced they will win the general election no matter who they choose.

“Right now, they think they can’t lose to the opposition,” said Masato Kamikubo, professor of political science at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

As the minister in charge of vaccines, he sometimes personally answered questions from Twitter users. Fumie Sakamoto, infection control manager at St. Luke International Hospital in Tokyo, said she believes her personal touch may have helped allay public fears about vaccines.

“He has always been willing to communicate about immunization in a positive and easy-to-understand manner,” Ms. Sakamoto said. After a slow start in the first half of the year, more than half of Japan’s population is now fully vaccinated, putting it ahead of the United States and many other Pacific Rim countries.

But other issues have put Kono on the wrong side of the powerful in his party.

He has repeatedly expressed his opposition to nuclear power, the sacred cow of the Liberal Democrats. He now supports same-sex marriage and a proposal to change a law requiring married couples to share a surname for legal purposes – positions popular with the public but opposed by the party’s influential right wing.

Mr Abe, who resigned last year due to health concerns, backed Sanae Takaichi, 60, a die-hard conservative, for the leadership. Ms Takaichi, said to be Japan’s first female prime minister, enjoys strong support from the right wing of the party, but her poll counts are low. Another woman in the leadership race, Seiko Noda, 61, has little public or party support.

Many Liberal Democrats see Fumio Kishida, 64, a moderate with lukewarm support in the polls, as the safest choice, according to media tales from lawmakers.

Mr Kono, whose father and grandfather were both Liberal Democrat lawmakers, has long made it clear that he wants to be prime minister. But he did not follow a traditional path to power. He left one of Japan’s most prestigious private universities, Keio, to study in Georgetown, Washington.

Mr Kono’s refined English and his extensive travel experience as foreign minister would make him a welcome choice for the post of prime minister among Japan’s allies, political analysts have said. “For Washington, he would be the most comfortable person,” said Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.

On China, Mr Kono does not invoke the kind of hawkish rhetoric Ms Takaichi and Mr Kishida used during the campaign, but he would be likely to uphold the party’s policies on military cooperation with the United States, Australia and India. .

Given his work on diplomatic and military issues – Mr Kono has also served as Mr Abe’s defense minister – he is “probably the person best prepared for the post of prime minister in this sense,” Narushige said. Michishita, Director of Security and International Studies. Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

But some say his confidence led to arrogance and even impetuosity. Last year, as Minister of Defense, he decided without consultation to cancel a plan to purchase an American missile defense system, angering Japanese military leaders who heard of the decision after cut.

“Maybe he’s too American,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat who served as Mr. Suga’s advisor. “He is very direct, honest, sometimes direct,” added Mr. Miyake. “And sometimes so self-righteous that no one can catch up or no one feels ready to help.”

Mr. Kono, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has a reputation for being angry with Japanese bureaucrats. He recently made a crusade against the fax machines that are still used in government offices, making waves by attacking one of the bureaucracy’s shibboleths.

In an interview with Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, Kono acknowledged that he might need to speak more carefully. “However, I do not intend to mince my words when it comes to pointing out the errors of bureaucratic thinking that is out of step with reality,” he said.

On Twitter, he also became quite notorious as the Japanese politician most likely to block his criticism – so much so that he spawned a hashtag, #IwasblockedbyKonoTaro, in Japanese. Asked about the practice in an interview with TBS, a broadcaster, he defended it.

“I don’t feel the need to have a conversation with people I don’t know who slander me,” he said.

Masahiko Abe, professor of English and American literature at the University of Tokyo, said he was blocked by Kono after hinting that the minister did not understand government policy on entrance exams to the university.

“I don’t mind that he is aggressive at times and even arrogant at times,” said Mr Abe. But, he added, “If he says something wrong, I think we have a right to correct it.”

People who worked with Kono said he believed political debates were more productive if they were rigorous. “The reason he understands the discussion is that he is demanding,” said Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute, a research and advocacy group, who served on an advisory group on climate change with Mr. Kono.

As a leadership contestant, Kono has calibrated some of his past positions. Despite his opposition to nuclear power, he said he supported restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants – the vast majority of which have been shut down since the triple Fukushima meltdown 10 years ago – as part of a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“He’s looking at his responsibilities and trying to figure out how he can cement support within the party,” said Mireya Solís, co-director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

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