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

TOKYO — If recognition had been the deciding issue, there could be a clear front-runner to develop into the subsequent prime minister of Japan.

Polls have discovered that the general public favors Taro Kono, the cupboard minister overseeing Japan’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, by not less than two to at least one within the race to steer the governing Liberal Democratic Celebration — which, in impact, is the race to develop into prime minister. His Twitter following of two.4 million dwarfs these of his three rivals mixed.

However within the again rooms the place Japanese political selections are made, Mr. Kono, 58, just isn’t practically as effectively preferred. His repute because the Liberal Democrats’ most outspoken nonconformist and his left-leaning views on social points put him out of step with the celebration’s conservative elders.

These folks can have appreciable sway on Wednesday because the Liberal Democrats select a successor to Yoshihide Suga, the unpopular present prime minister and celebration chief, who mentioned this month that he would step apart. Whoever takes his place will lead the celebration into a common election that have to be held by the top of November.

In previous celebration management elections, unity has made the winner a foregone conclusion. However this time, the political horse buying and selling has generally appeared at odds with standard sentiment, at the same time as the general public has expressed dissatisfaction with the celebration’s management on the pandemic and the financial system. That disconnect partly displays complacency among the many Liberal Democrats, who’ve been in energy for all however a few years since 1955 and appear assured that they’ll win the final election irrespective of who they select.

“Proper now, their considering is that they’ll’t lose to the opposition,” mentioned Masato Kamikubo, a professor of political science at Ritsumeikan College in Kyoto.

Because the minister answerable for vaccines, he has generally responded personally to Twitter customers’ questions. Fumie Sakamoto, an an infection management supervisor at St. Luke’s Worldwide Hospital in Tokyo, mentioned she believed his private contact might have helped ease public fears concerning the vaccines.

“He’s all the time been keen to speak about vaccination in a optimistic and easy-to-understand method,” Ms. Sakamoto mentioned. After a gradual begin within the first half of the yr, greater than half of the inhabitants in Japan is now totally vaccinated, placing it forward of the USA and plenty of different international locations across the Pacific Rim.

However different points have put Mr. Kono on the improper aspect of his celebration’s energy brokers.

He has repeatedly voiced his opposition to nuclear energy, a sacred cow for the Liberal Democrats. He now helps same-sex marriage and a proposal to vary a regulation requiring married {couples} to share a surname for authorized functions — positions which can be standard with the general public however opposed by the celebration’s influential proper wing.

Mr. Abe, who resigned final yr due to sick well being, has backed Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative, for the management. Ms. Takaichi, who could be Japan’s first feminine prime minister, has sturdy backing from the appropriate wing of the celebration, however her ballot numbers are low. One other girl within the management race, Seiko Noda, 61, has little help from both the general public or the celebration.

Many Liberal Democratic members of Parliament contemplate Fumio Kishida, 64, a reasonable with tepid help within the polls, to be the most secure selection, in accordance with media tallies of lawmakers.

Mr. Kono, whose father and grandfather had been each Liberal Democratic lawmakers, has lengthy made it clear that he needs to be prime minister. However he didn’t comply with a conventional path to energy. He left a place at considered one of Japan’s most prestigious personal universities, Keio, to check at Georgetown in Washington as an alternative.

Mr. Kono’s polished English and in depth journey expertise as international minister would make him a welcome selection for prime minister amongst Japan’s allies, political analysts mentioned. “For Washington, he could be essentially the most snug individual,” mentioned Shihoko Goto, a senior affiliate for Northeast Asia on the Wilson Heart in Washington.

On China, Mr. Kono doesn’t invoke the sort of hawkish rhetoric that Ms. Takaichi and Mr. Kishida have been utilizing in the course of the marketing campaign, however he could be prone to keep the celebration’s insurance policies on navy cooperation with the USA, Australia and India.

Given his work on diplomatic and navy points — Mr. Kono additionally served as Mr. Abe’s protection minister — he’s “in all probability the best-prepared individual for the prime ministership in that sense,” mentioned Narushige Michishita, vice chairman of the Nationwide Graduate Institute for Coverage Research in Tokyo.

However some say his confidence has led to conceitedness and even impetuosity. Final yr, as protection minister, he determined with little session to cancel a plan to purchase an American missile protection system, angering Japanese navy leaders who heard concerning the determination after the actual fact.

“Perhaps he’s too American,” mentioned Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat who has been an adviser to Mr. Suga. “He’s very direct, sincere, generally blunt,” Mr. Miyake added. “And generally so self-righteous that no one can catch up or no one feels keen to assist.”

Mr. Kono, who declined to be interviewed for this text, has a repute for being short-tempered with Japanese bureaucrats. He just lately crusaded in opposition to the fax machines which can be nonetheless utilized in authorities workplaces, making waves by taking up one of many shibboleths of the forms.

In an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest each day newspaper, Mr. Kono acknowledged that he may want to talk extra fastidiously. “Nevertheless, I don’t intend to mince phrases relating to declaring the fallacies of bureaucratic considering that isn’t attuned to actuality,” he mentioned.

On Twitter, he has additionally develop into fairly infamous because the Japanese politician almost certainly to dam his critics — a lot in order that he spawned a hashtag, #IwasblockedbyKonoTaro, in Japanese. When requested concerning the apply in an interview with TBS, a broadcaster, he defended it.

“I don’t really feel the necessity to have a dialog with folks I don’t know who slander me,” he mentioned.

Masahiko Abe, a professor of English and American literature on the College of Tokyo, mentioned he was blocked by Mr. Kono after suggesting that the minister didn’t perceive the federal government’s coverage on college entrance exams.

“I don’t thoughts that he’s generally aggressive and even boastful now and again,” Mr. Abe mentioned. However, he added, “If he says something improper, I believe we have now the appropriate to appropriate him.”

Individuals who have labored with Mr. Kono mentioned he believed that coverage debates had been extra productive in the event that they had been rigorous. “The rationale why he understands the dialogue is as a result of he’s demanding,” mentioned Mika Ohbayashi, a director on the Renewable Vitality Institute, a analysis and advocacy group, who served on a local weather change advisory panel with Mr. Kono.

As a candidate for the management, Mr. Kono has calibrated a few of his previous positions. Regardless of his opposition to nuclear energy, he mentioned he supported the restart of Japan’s nuclear crops — the overwhelming majority of which have been idled for the reason that triple meltdown in Fukushima 10 years in the past — as a part of a plan to cut back greenhouse fuel emissions.

“He’s his liabilities and he’s attempting to determine how he can cement help throughout the celebration,” mentioned Mireya Solís, co-director of the Heart for East Asia Coverage Research on the Brookings Establishment.

Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

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