Tokyo Report | Politics | East Asia

What If Kono Taro Becomes Japan’s Next Prime Minister?

The spirit of the Kono Statement will be welcomed by Beijing and Seoul – if Kono Taro truly intends to follow in his father’s footsteps.

What If Kono Taro Becomes Japan’s Next Prime Minister?

In this June 14, 2018 photo, then-Japanese Foreign Minister Kono Taro participates in a joint press availability after a trilateral meeting with Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Seoul, South Korea.

Credit: U.S. State Department

On September 10, Japan’s COVID-19 Vaccine Minister Kono Taro declared his candidacy for the presidential leadership race of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). One week ago, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide abruptly announced that he would not run for the race scheduled on September 29. Given the dominance of the LDP in Japanese politics, whoever wins the LDP presidential race will become the next prime minister of Japan. Suga’s resignation was widely welcomed by young and mid-level LDP legislators due to the fact that a “fresh face” is strategically vital for the upcoming general election, scheduled to be held by late November.

It has been reported that Suga would back Kono, who is popular among young voters because of his frankness and familiarity with social media, especially Twitter where he has 2.3 million followers. Kono belongs to a faction of former Prime Minister Aso Taro, yet most LDP elders including Aso are wary of Kono’s “outspokenness and maverick tendencies.”

According to a poll by Kyodo News on September 5, Kono’s popularity among the public was the highest, with the support of 31.9 percent of respondents in the nationwide telephone survey. Former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru came in second with 26.6 percent support, and former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio was third with 18.8 percent.

Although the Japanese public favors Kono and Ishiba in the LDP race, Kono and Kishida, both former foreign ministers, are the likely front-runners in the race to succeed Suga. More critically, there is a possibility that Ishiba, a perennial also-ran for the LDP’s top slot, will give up on the race if he judges that there is no chance for him to win. In that case, he might support Kono instead. If Ishiba were to back Kono instead of Kishida, it is likely that Kono would win the race and become the next Japanese prime minister. Still, it has to be noted that Ishiba can wait until September 17 to reveal his decision on whether or not to run.

What will it mean for Japanese politics and foreign and security policy if Kono wins the leadership race, a stepping stone for the premiership?

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Kono Taro was born to a prominent political family in Hiratsuka city of Kanagawa prefecture on January 10, 1963. His grandfather, Kono Ichiro, and father, Kono Yohei, were both legislators in the House of Representatives, Japan’s lower house. Kono Ichiro, then the minister of agriculture and forestry, made a diplomatic contribution to the normalization of the Soviet-Japan relationship by helping negotiate the “Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration” in 1956. Kono Ichiro later served as vice prime minister and state minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic in 1964.

Kono Yohei served as speaker of the House of Representatives, LDP president, and vice prime minister. He is most famous, however, for the so-called “Kono Statement” of 1993, issued in his capacity as chief cabinet secretary, which officially recognized the existence of “comfort women” and involvement of the Imperial Japanese Army in sexual slavery during the wartime period. Thus, Kono’s family background is meaningful and symbolic in terms of the history of Japanese diplomacy and his diplomatic philosophy.

As for his education and employment background, Kono studied at Keio Junior and Senior High Schools, and Keio University. However, he dropped out of Keio University after just two months in order to study in the United States, and enrolled in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in December in 1982. In 1985, he graduated from the university, and started working for Fuji Xerox (current Fujifilm Business Innovation Corp.) in 1986, moving to Nippon Tanshi Co. Ltd. in 1993. Following his business experience, Kono ran for the general election and won a seat in the House of Representatives for the first time in 1996.

Kono has held several ministerial and cabinet positions, such as defense minister, foreign minister, chairman of the national public safety commission (minister in charge of the national police organization), minister for administrative reform, minister for civil service reform, minister for regulatory reform, minister in charge of consumer affairs and food safety, minister in charge of disaster management, parliamentary secretary for public management, and senior vice minister of justice. Currently, Kono has played a significant role in curbing the coronavirus spread as regulatory reform minister as well as minister in charge of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out in the Suga administration.

In spite of his ministerial experience however, Kono has frequently opposed some controversial policies of the Japanese government and the LDP. Although most LDP legislators are cautious about enacting same-sex marriage in Japan, Kono has been supportive of the movement of “marriage for all Japan,” which seeks to legalize an equal marriage system in Japan.

Despite the fact that the government and the LDP have upheld the necessity of nuclear energy, Kono has been opposed to the peaceful use of atomic energy, stating that the “nuclear power lobby has hijacked Japan’s energy policy.” Instead, Kono has advocated for decommissioning nuclear reactors while facilitating the spread of renewable energy and Japan’s move toward a carbon-neutral society. In preparation for the upcoming presidential election, Kono has slightly modified his nuclear energy policy, admitting the necessity of atomic energy for the time being.

In terms of foreign and security policy, Kono has occasionally expressed his opposition to the government and his political party’s stance. For instance, he was one of the few LDP lawmakers who were cautious and unsupportive of the hasty dispatch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to post-war reconstruction in Iraq without adequate understanding from the Japanese people. For this reason, Kono has been referred to as a “dove,” “maverick,” or even “eccentric” in the party. By contrast, on North Korea Kono has been regarded as a hardliner who urged other countries to cut diplomatic and economic ties with Pyongyang. In essence, Kono, like other former foreign and defense ministers, supported the hawkish stance of the Abe administration. Therefore, it is fair to argue that Kono is not as dovish as his father in his foreign and security policy.

Still, Kono’s victory in the LDP leadership race might influence Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea. In particular, Beijing must be curious and concerned about how Kono would approach the South and East China Seas.

When Kono was chosen as foreign minister in the Abe administration, he was expected to follow in his father’s diplomatic footsteps. If Kono indeed were to adopt his father’s stance on historical issues, his victory in the LDP leadership race would be welcomed by Beijing and Seoul. Yet, it seems that Kono has been neutral about the Kono Statement so far. It also has to be noted that the Kono Statement was issued before China surpassed the Japanese economy in size and before Japan suffered from “apology fatigue.” In addition, the Kono Statement has been criticized by Japanese nationalists and right-wing constituencies.

Is Kono going to follow his father’s diplomatic footsteps if elected as LDP president and Japanese premier?

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Previously, Kono stated in an interview with NHK that “every and all the politicians have something they want to accomplish. And in order to implement your program, the best way is to become the prime minister.” In other words, if selected as the next LDP president and prime minister, Kono is likely to pursue his own political goals, especially toward a gender-equal, nuclear-free, and carbon-free society. Moreover, it is possible to theorize that Kono has long waited to become prime minister in order to follow his father’s diplomatic footsteps, with a view to promoting Japan’s reconciliation diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region. If so, the succession of the spirit of the Kono Statement would be welcomed by neighboring countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

Significantly, Kono promised that he would not visit Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals, are enshrined, if he ever became prime minister. Kono has visited the shrine in the past because his relatives died in the war and are enshrined there. Unlike other contenders in the LDP race, especially former International Affairs Minister Takaichi Sanae, who justifies her Yasukuni visits, Kono has argued that a Japanese premier’s official visit to Yasukuni Shrine would harm the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people. Kono understands that it would lead to international criticism and aggravate Japan’s diplomatic ties with its neighboring states in the Asia-Pacific region, as such a visit would be viewed as a sign of historical amnesia regarding Japan’s war responsibility. In this case at least, it is fair to observe that the spirit of the Kono Statement is alive in the diplomatic philosophy of Kono Taro.

If elected as Japan’s top leader, Kono is expected to take concrete measures against the COVID-19 pandemic, defend Japan’s territorial integrity based on the Japan-U.S. alliance, and to make a diplomatic contribution to international reconciliation with neighboring countries based on the spirit of the Kono Statement.