Taro Kono, the political maverick who could be Japan’s next prime minister

Japan’s straight-talking, social media-savvy minister for vaccines and reform, Taro Kono, is the frontrunner to become the country’s next leader. Seen as a maverick in Japan’s staid political world, Kono has set his sights on shaking up the nation’s entrenched bureaucracy.

Kono has used his platform on Twitter – where his Japanese account has nearly 2.4 million followers and his English-language one nearly 50,000 – to berate civil servants for working into the wee hours and holding late-night press conferences.

A former foreign and defence minister under Shinzo Abe, the ambitious Kono laid out his vision for how the nation should proceed in areas such as geopolitics, digitalisation, social security and education in a book entitled Move Giappone Forward, published last month.

While defence minister, he announced the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore missile defence system in June last year, reportedly causing consternation among sections of the LDP and military establishments over a lack of the backroom consensus-building that usually precede such decisions.

But despite a reputation for unpredictability, Kono, hails from one of Japan’s numerous political dynasties, and radical shifts on major issues would be unlikely under his premiership.

His father, Yohei Kono, was president of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) and a deputy prime minister. His grandfather was head of a powerful faction within the party in the 1950s and 1960s, while his great-uncle was speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1970s.

After dropping out of Tokyo’s elite Keio University, Kono studied in the US, where he honed his English skills and worked on Alan Cranston’s failed campaign to be the Democratic nominee in the 1984 presidential election. On his return to Japan, he spent a decade in the corporate world before winning a seat in 1996 in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, which he has held since.

As the minister for administrative reform since last September, Kono pledged to cut through red tape and end the use of anachronisms such as faxes and official seals in government and its agencies. The herculean task ahead of him was brought home when Kono announced in April that ministries should phase out faxes by June unless there was a vital reason not to. His administrative taskforce received more than 400 claims from government entities insisting that the facsimile was indispensable. They are still being widely used.

Nevertheless, Kono’s predilection for outspokenness has won him support among the public and he led a weekend opinion poll with 31.9% on who should be the next prime minister. Behind him was another former defence minister, Shigeru Ishiba, on 26.6%,and another former defence minister, Fumio Kishida, con 18.8%. Seiko Noda and Sanae Takaichi, who are both vying to be Japan’s first female leader, registered just 4.4% e 4%, rispettivamente.

“The sense that he’s his own man and speaks his mind plays well with the public, particularly among the young,” said Jun Okumura, an analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. “Incredibly, a 58, he’s also the youngest among the candidates.”

Ishiba gave Kono’s chances a further boost this week by suggesting he won’t run in the leadership contest.

The election for the LDP presidency, which effectively delivers the premiership to the winner, will be held on 29 settembre, with half of the votes cast by 383 MPs and half by local party chapters. It looks unlikely that Kono will get the simple majority required in the first round of voting, so it will then come down to a run-off between the top two candidates.

"A quel punto, it is Kono’s to lose,” predicted Okumura.

There will then be a general election by 30 November at the latest, with the response to the pandemic set to be the dominant issue. There too, Kono should be in good shape thanks to having been in charge of vaccines. Despite a slow start, vaccinations have been delivered quickly and more than 135m doses have now been administered.

“The bright spot for the government is the vaccination programme. They secured far more vaccines than many had expected and Japan has even been donating doses to countries such as Taiwan,” said Okumura. “By the time the election rolls around, the vaccination rate in Japan is on course to overtake that in the US and much of Europe. Kono will be a good representation of this.”

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