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Japan’s new top diplomat faces struggle defining himself

TOKYO — Japan’s new foreign minister held his own this week in talks with Asian and Western counterparts, thanks both to his energy for the job and confidence as a speaker. But it remains to be seen whether his father’s formidable diplomatic legacy and a strong set of personal principles help or hinder Taro Kono as he works toward a diplomatic style of his own.


Kono, appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a cabinet reshuffle last Thursday, welcomed the chance to show off his skills at the ASEAN Regional Forum and related meetings in Manila, which brought together members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and partners from around the world.


But the newly minted diplomat quickly found that the reputation of his father, Yohei Kono, preceded him. Brunei’s Lim Jock Seng called the elder Kono and the late Shintaro Abe — father of the current prime minister — some of the most memorable Japanese foreign ministers he had encountered during his long diplomatic career. Lim and the younger Kono met in bilateral talks Sunday.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, too, lauded Taro Kono as a member of an eminent Japanese political family when the pair met Monday, saying he knows well Yohei Kono’s contributions to Russo-Japanese relations.


Kono took pains at the start of his tenure to avoid disappearing into his father’s shadow. “Our personalities and ways of thinking are entirely different,” he said Friday in an address to ministry staff, asking them to “put aside your experience” from his father’s era and “get to know Taro Kono.” That attitude had softened by the time key meetings in Manila wrapped up: “I’m thankful” for the elder Kono’s personal connections, and “I will make use of them,” he told reporters Monday evening.


Reading from his own script

South Korea is less than pleased by the new minister’s attempts to distance himself from his father. It was Yohei Kono, then chief cabinet secretary, who issued the so-called Kono Statement in 1993, which acknowledged for the first time that the Japanese military took part in coercing Korean women into work as wartime “comfort women” and apologized to those who “suffered immeasurable pain” from their experience. The landmark document is lauded in South Korea to this day.


Taro Kono, however, was taken to task by local media for insisting to South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha that a 2015 bilateral accord meant to settle the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly” should be carried out, despite calls in Seoul for it to be renegotiated.


Other bilateral encounters allowed Kono to exercise his polished English and debate skills. A meeting with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi began on a sour note, with Wang telling Kono that China was “disappointed” with his comments urging the Asian power to exercise self-restraint in the South China Sea. An unfazed Kono retorted that he would like to see China “learn how to behave as a big power,” drawing an awkward grin from his counterpart.


Kono declined the services of an interpreter in talks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, packing a good deal more content into their 15-minute pull aside than otherwise would have been possible. And he approached North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho on his own initiative to convey — in English — Tokyo’s demands for Pyongyang.


Mixed impression

The new minister is “the most capable English speaker to serve as foreign minister since Kiichi Miyazawa,” who later became prime minister, and his “ability to communicate at multilateral meetings is promising,” according to senior ministry officials — though using Japanese in diplomatic settings, where speaking accurately is paramount, remains a general rule at the ministry.


The new minister creates a mixed impression at the ministry in other ways, too. Kono served as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s point man on administrative reform until his cabinet appointment, and advocated halving Japan’s official development assistance, whose effectiveness he questions. He has been known to refer to the organization he now leads as the “Ministry of Harmful Affairs,” a pun on its Japanese name, for what he calls its mismanagement of foreign aid.


Kono is also a staunch advocate of phasing out nuclear power, and has criticized Japan’s efforts to develop a recycling program for spent nuclear fuel. He has said little since taking office about the future of a nuclear energy agreement between Japan and the U.S. that expires next year.

“Abandoning nuclear power is one of Mr. Kono’s core beliefs,” a supporter of his said. “If he keeps that under wraps, he won’t be Taro anymore.”


Nor has the minister ruled out running for president of his party in the fall of 2018 — he has been a contender in the past. “I want to take things step by step,” he said when asked about the possibility, which would likely put him in competition with Abe. For now, Kono’s most important task is making a name for himself as a diplomat, working his father’s legacy, his personal views and the government’s priorities into a doctrine all his own.

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