Taro Kono, Japan’s most popular prime ministerial candidate, far from a Shoo-In

TOKYO – If popularity were the deciding factor, there would be a clear favorite to become the next prime minister of Japan.

Polls have found that the public favors Taro Kono, the cabinet minister who oversees the launch of the coronavirus vaccine in Japan, by at least two to one in the race to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which, in effect , is the race to become prime minister. His Twitter following of 2.4 million dwarfs that of his three rivals combined.

But in the hindquarters where Japanese political decisions are made, the 58-year-old Kono is not as beloved. His reputation as the most outspoken nonconformist of the Liberal Democrats and his left-wing views on social issues put him out of step with the party’s conservative elders.

Those people will have considerable influence on Wednesday when the Liberal Democrats elect a successor to Yoshihide Suga, the current unpopular prime minister and party leader, who He said this month that he would step aside. Whoever takes his place will lead the party to a general election to be held at the end of November.

In the last party leadership elections, unity has made the winner a foregone conclusion. But this time around, the political game sometimes seems to be at odds with popular sentiment, even as the public has expressed dissatisfaction with the party’s leadership in the pandemic and the economy. That disconnect partly reflects complacency among Liberal Democrats, who have been in power since 1955 except for a few years, and seem confident that 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, a political science professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

As the minister in charge of vaccines, he has on occasion personally responded to questions from Twitter users. Fumie Sakamoto, infection control manager at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo, said he believed his personal touch may have helped ease public fears about vaccines.

“He has always been willing to communicate about vaccination in a positive and easy-to-understand way,” said Ms. Sakamoto. After 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 problems have put Kono on the wrong side of his party’s powerful agents.

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

Mr. Abe, who resigned last year due to poor health, has endorsed Sanae Takaichi, 60, hard-line conservative, for leadership. Ms Takaichi, who would be Japan’s first female prime minister, has strong backing from the party’s right wing, but her poll numbers are low. Another woman in the race for leadership, 61-year-old Seiko Noda, has little public or party support.

Many members of the Liberal Democratic Parliament consider Fumio Kishida, 64, a moderate with lukewarm support in the polls, as the safest option, according to lawmakers’ accounts in the media.

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

Kono’s polished English and extensive travel experience as foreign minister would make him a good pick for prime minister among Japan’s allies, political analysts 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 aggressive rhetoric that Ms. Takaichi and Mr. Kishida have been using during the campaign, but he is likely to uphold the party’s policies on military cooperation with the United States, Australia, and India. . .

Given his work in diplomatic and military affairs, Mr. Kono also served as Mr. Abe’s defense minister, he is “probably the best prepared person for the position of prime minister in that regard,” said Narushige Michishita, vice president of the Institute. National Graduate. for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

But some say their confidence has led to arrogance and even impetuosity. Last year, as defense minister, he decided with few consultations to cancel a purchase plan. an American missile defense system, which angered Japanese military leaders who learned of the decision after the fact.

“Maybe it’s too American,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat who has been an adviser to Mr. Suga. “He’s very direct, honest, frank at times,” added Miyake. “And sometimes it’s so self-righteous that no one can catch up or no one feels willing to help.”

Mr. Kono, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has a reputation for being short-tempered with Japanese bureaucrats. He recently made a crusade against the fax machines that are still used in government offices, making waves when faced with one of the names of the bureaucracy.

In an interview with the Yomiuri shimbunJapan’s largest newspaper, Mr. Kono acknowledged that he may need to speak more carefully. “However, I do not pretend to beat around the bush when it comes to pointing out the fallacies of bureaucratic thinking that is out of step with reality,” he said.

On Twitter, he has also become quite well known as the Japanese politician most likely to block his critics, so much so that he generated a hashtag, #IwasblockedbyKonoTaro, in Japanese. When asked about the practice in an interview with TBS, an announcer 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, a professor of English and American literature at the University of Tokyo, said Kono blocked him after suggesting that the minister did not understand the government’s policy on university entrance exams.

“I don’t mind that he is sometimes aggressive and even arrogant once in a while,” Abe said. But, he added, “if he says something wrong, I think we have the right to correct it.”

People who have worked with Mr. Kono said that he believed that policy discussions were more productive if they were rigorous. “The reason you understand the discussion is because it is demanding,” said Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute, a research and advocacy group, who participated in an advisory panel on climate change with Mr. Kono.

As a candidate for leadership, Mr. Kono has calibrated some of his past positions. Despite his opposition to nuclear power, he said he supported the restart of Japan’s nuclear plants, the vast majority of which have been idle since the triple fusion on Fukushima 10 years ago, as part of a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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

Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

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