Race to the top: The 2018 LDP leadership contest / Kono — From maverick to mainstream

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo

Foreign Minister Taro Kono speaks to reporters in Beijing in January.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the fifth installment of a series.

On the evening of Feb. 3, Foreign Minister Taro Kono was at an English conversation school in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in his home constituency, which he was visiting between overseas trips after a month’s absence.

Kono, 55, was invited to a special class at the school. As he introduced himself saying that he is using his fluent English skills in diplomatic negotiations, a junior high school boy asked him straight away, “Do you want to be prime minister?”

Replying without hesitation, Kono said, “Of course, I do, because when you are prime minister and you say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ you can do it.”

Kono’s goal is clear. Since he won an election for the first time at the age of 33, he has declared, “I will become prime minister.”

Neither his grandfather Ichiro — a former agriculture minister who negotiated with Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration — nor his father Yohei, 81 — a former speaker of the House of Representatives who served as foreign minister and president of the Liberal Democratic Party — were able to attain the post.

Advocating abandoning nuclear power — contrary to LDP policy — and repeatedly making blunt criticisms of the bureaucracy, Kono has been viewed as a maverick within the party. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 63, promoted Kono to foreign minister in the Cabinet reshuffle last summer.

His father Yohei’s dovish views on diplomacy are the diametric opposite of Abe’s, causing concern among those close to the prime minister. But Abe, thinking highly of Kono’s global perspective, did not care about that, saying, “It will be all right.”

In fact, Kono demonstrated his true value in his first meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, 64, last August. When Kono expressed concern about the South China Sea issue involving China, Wang bristled, saying: “I’m so disappointed. I hope you will respect your father’s views.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Jun Matsumoto

In response, Kono did not give an inch, saying, “You need to learn how to behave like a major power.”

Offering Kono high praise, Abe was quoted as saying: “Having Wang say, ‘I’m so disappointed’ is like gaining a compliment. [He is] doing a great job.”

Since he took up his current post, Kono has visited around 30 countries and regions in half a year. In particular, he has asserted his strong presence in Middle Eastern diplomacy — his forte — and is rapidly solidifying his path toward the “post-Abe” role.

In 2009, soon after the LDP fell to the opposition party, Kono ran in the party presidential election for the first time, but was defeated by former LDP Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki, 73. In 2012, he abandoned his run because many of the lawmakers who had supported Kono three years previously shifted their support to Abe.

Kono has not disclosed his plans for the upcoming party presidential election, but Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, 77, has said, “The contest will be in 2021, not this time.” Aso also leads the Aso faction, to which Kono belongs.

Aso, who took over the faction leadership from Yohei, intends to build up Kono in preparation for the election after the next one. Some within the party speculate that Aso may return the faction leadership to the Kono family in the future.

Even more than Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 69, is pinning high expectations on Kono. Elected for the first time in the same year as Kono in Kanagawa Prefecture, Suga worked hard to enlist people to nominate Kono for the 2009 party presidential election. It was also Suga who advised Abe to appoint Kono as foreign minister.

A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official revealed that Suga repeatedly pushed Kono, saying, “I will do anything to make him a prime minister in the future, so take good care of him.”

Favored by key figures in the administration, yet walking the path as a maverick, Kono began showing some signs of change. Within the Aso faction, he had a reputation as a lone wolf who did not look after the younger members. But during the lower house election last October, he rushed around to support young lawmakers. He has put a lid on his personal views against the use of nuclear power as well, shedding them in favor of a more pragmatic line.

Aso has yet to announce his successor as faction leader. Kono has deflected speculation, saying, “It would be strange for me to say, ‘I want to take over the faction’ when Mr. Aso has not said anything to me about it.” But he acknowledges that leading the faction is a route to becoming prime minister.

Regarding Kono, Aso has said with a smile, “He, too, is changing.”


First-rate English skills

Jun Matsumoto / Secretary general of Aso faction, former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission

Foreign minister is an ideal post for Kono, who has some of the strongest English skills in Tokyo’s Nagatacho political district and is well-versed in international affairs, and he’s in his element traveling around the world. What drives him is probably a sense of a mission that if Japan is to be respected within the international community, he must do the work himself.

While he is a rare man of action, Kono is exceptionally hardworking and diligent as well. Keenly interested in energy policy and information strategy, he has for many years kept up personal study groups made up of Diet members.

He also demonstrates deference to his superiors. Upon first joining the Cabinet, I saw him sitting with his back ramrod-straight in silence when faction leader Aso called him in to explain at length what was expected of him as a Cabinet member.

In the 2009 party leadership election, he failed to expand his share of votes among Diet members. He can’t drink, so he’s ill-suited to evening socializing. By fostering friendship with his peers, he needs to get them to understand what he is really like.

Assuming the post of foreign minister has marked a milestone, but his true goal is beyond that.Speech

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