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Kono winning trust from Abe, but his father’s presence may affect future aspirations

  • October 1, 2017
  • , p. 10-11
  • JMH Translation

Foreign Minister Taro Kono is raising his profile in the Nagatacho political arena. In foreign policy, he has differentiated himself from past foreign ministers, “earning a good reputation.” While his predecessors were criticized for their weak-kneed diplomacy with China and South Korea, he keeps his own ideas under wraps and confronts the two nations in a more resolute fashion. With Nagatcho already bracing for the general election, expectations are growing among people close to Kono that he will stay in the post after the election and aim to become prime minister in the future.


The tide began to surge in favor of Kono when he spoke to the press for the first time as foreign minister. Asked about his stance on the comfort women issue, he gave the clear-cut answer that “we will approach it based on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s remarks issued at the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the agreement that my predecessor, Fumio Kishida, signed with South Korea.”


This instantly raised the hackles of China and South Korea. When Kono criticized China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea during an ASEAN ministerial session in August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “we had high hopes for you as foreign minister, but listening to what you have said, we are frankly disappointed.” But Kono did not flinch. He demanded that China act like a major power based on the international rules. This boosted his reputation.


He is also earning points in his dealings with North Korea. In his series of meetings with his counterparts from various countries in September, he aligned himself with Prime Minister Abe and called for stronger pressure on the regime. When the missile North Korea fired on Aug. 29 passed over Japan, he noted at a press conference held in the middle of his busy schedule of going back and forth between the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] and the National Security Council: “The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution banning all exports of coal, iron ore, seafood and other goods from the North. The suspension of the export of all of these items is worth at least 1 billion dollars. If the resolution is implemented stringently, we can cut off their funding sources for nuclear and missile development.”


Kono’s actions are steadily earning trust from Abe. He also boosted his reputation in dealing with South Korea. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that “individual rights to claim compensation” over forced labor during Japan colonial rule remain intact, Kono soon lodged a protest and cancelled his attendance at an international conference held in South Korea. Later, Moon effectively retracted his remarks on the forced labor issue. This contributed to pushing up his credibility compared to his predecessor, Kishida.


Amid rising expectations for Kono, however, criticism is also erupting from both within and outside the Liberal Democratic Party. One factor fanning the criticism is the presence of his father, Yohei Kono. At an event held in September, the senior Kono criticized the Abe government for its foreign policy with China and North Korea and stressed the need for dialogue. “Whenever North Korea launches a missile, Japan calls for stronger pressure and sanctions,” he said. “And when this does not work, it blames China. This approach won’t help solve the North Korean issue at all.” This sparks speculation that Kono might have been speaking on behalf of his son, who cannot say what he wants to say.”


Another concern is Kono’s turnabout in dealing with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had been long critical of MOFA’s [wasteful spending], but once he became minister there, he approved earmarking more funds to official development assistance programs, personnel costs, business travel expenses and the establishment of new overseas missions.


By becoming a cabinet minister, Kono has been thrust into the political spotlight for both good and bad reasons. Rumor has it that some media outlets are trying to dig out his extramarital affairs. He is said to have a strong connection with the entertainment industry. But once he makes it through the general election and produces steady results, the posts of party president and prime minister will become more realistic goals for him. (Abridged)

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