HIROSHI ASAHINA, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — Despite belonging to the most mainstream political party in Japan and coming from a family of politicians, Taro Kono has long been viewed as a lone wolf in Japanese politics. His aloofness has always been why no one would have ever taken his prime ministerial ambitions seriously till a few years ago.
“It’s important to focus on the work I have to do first,” said Kono, choosing his words carefully in a news program last month when asked whether he would support Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the upcoming presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Kono seemed to be calculating how to achieve his long-held ambition to become prime minister. The maverick is currently spearheading Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination program and has been in the media spotlight for months.
Vaccination “appears to be advancing at a considerably fast pace,” Kono said at a news conference on Tuesday, noting that Japan had administered more than 100 million doses.
In fact, vaccinations totaled 102.91 million as of Monday, according to a government statement the following day. The number included 60.05 million jabs for people aged 65 and above, while vaccinations at work, universities and other entities totaled 7.72 million doses by Aug. 1.
Kono’s vaccination program will likely determine the fate of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet at a time its approval rating has continued to slump amid spreading COVID cases.
The outcome will also affect Kono’s political ambitions.
Kono has remained in the spotlight due to his straight-talking persona but is already 58 years old: two years older than his father Yohei when he became president of the Liberal Democratic Party. Hence, the clock is ticking if he is to assume the role as a relatively young and middle-ranking lawmaker to succeed the 72-year-old Suga, under the slogan of “a generation change.”
Under normal circumstances, Kono would be preparing to run in the LDP presidential election. But the poll has been moved forward a year as Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, 66, stepped down before the end of his term, delaying Kono’s reach for the top.
On Aug. 31 last year, Kono was in the office in Tokyo of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, 80, who heads an intra-LDP faction, of which Kono is a member. “You are an important card for us. You don’t need to compete with Suga this time,” the octogenarian told Kono, who wanted to run in the LDP presidential election that would determine Abe’s successor, according to a person at the meeting.
“Your father was president of the LDP but never became prime minister. I was in office as prime minister for only one year,” Aso said. “You shouldn’t rush. A good opportunity will come, for sure.”
Aso told Kono to get a bit more experience in the Suga cabinet while preparing for the next opportunity.
Although a significant number of young LDP lawmakers called for Kono to run in the election, he instead followed Aso’s advice.
Kono undeniably feels indebted to Suga. Elected as prime minister, Suga picked Kono as minister in charge of regulatory reform, the new premier’s pet policy.
With both representing constituencies in Kanagawa Prefecture, Kono is one of Suga’s few cabinet confidants. In January, Suga named Kono to the post of minister for vaccine rollout, evidently thinking that vaccine procurement could be problematic if left solely in the hands of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Suga expected Kono to exercise his “breakthrough power” to get things done through bold measures as he has done in the past.
Unlike most of his LDP peers, Kono often advocates for heretical policies within the party, such as phasing out nuclear power. While he never hid his ambition to become prime minister, few LDP members thought a decade ago that he would become a viable candidate in light of his refusal to form a power base.
Recent Nikkei opinion surveys show Kono as the front-runner to become the next prime minister.
Despite his nonconformist pedigree, Kono was asked to join Abe’s cabinet, thanks in large part to a recommendation by Suga — then the chief cabinet secretary — and served as the foreign minister and the defense minister. Though often criticized as “all talk, no action,” or as being a poor coordinator, Kono began to gain traction as a possible prime minister.
When Kono was instructed by Suga in early May to up the number of daily vaccine shots to 1 million, he replied that the appropriate number was 700,000 to 800,000. But the premier urged him to shoot for 1 million.
The number of daily shots topped 1 million roughly a month later and peaked at 1.6 million. “I learned that hoisting a flag and charging forward is one way of getting things done,” Kono told Nikkei.
Now working closely for Suga, Kono is honing his political skills and accumulating power, hopefully to replace the ossified LDP power structure with a new generation of politicians.
Kono has surpassed Shinjiro Koizumi, 40, as the most popular choice to be the next prime minister, according to Nikkei opinion surveys this year.
Being digitally friendly has helped Kono grow his popularity. In 1998, just two years after being elected to the lower house of the Diet, he started an e-newsletter called Gomame no Hagishiri (Futile Resistance), which is still active and has been published more than 5,000 times.
His Twitter account, which he says is “just for killing time,” has more than 2.3 million followers, making him one of the most-followed lawmakers on the internet.
During the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July, Kono delivered 30 speeches for candidates supported by the LDP, testament to the fact that he remains one of the most popular speakers in the party. “I am not a populist but a realist,” Kono said to his fellow lawmakers.
Past opinion polls proved that popularity alone cannot turn a lawmaker into a prime minister. As far as Kono is concerned, his “breakthrough power” is identified closely with a “lack of coordinating ability.”
For example, in June 2020, Kono — then the nation’s defense minister — canceled a plan to deploy the ground-based U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system, drawing fire from senior LDP members for his lack of consensus building. Worries remain in the LDP that Kono could be a loose cannon if he becomes prime minister.
Kono also caused a stir in the COVID-19 vaccination program. In July, many local governments refused to accept vaccination appointments due to a supply shortage. Kono aroused ire from various quarters after brushing aside their concerns, saying there should already be a large inventory of vaccines at the local level.
“I deeply apologize because I behaved as if I had pulled the rug away from under you,” Kono told Kamon Iizumi, governor of Tokushima Prefecture and president of the National Governors Association, during an online meeting on July 15.
To win broad support from LDP lawmakers as their future leader, Kono is being tested as to whether he can complete the vaccination program by November at latest, as promised by Suga.
On Aug. 27, Kono will release a new book titled, “Move Japan Forward,” which clearly reveals his ambition to become prime minister. The book outlines issues he cannot avoid as a prime ministerial candidate, including international relations, digital policy, social security and education.
Kono has no intention of vying with Suga, according to people close to him. But speculation about Kono’s immediate ambitions is rife, as the book will be released at a time when Suga’s approval rating has slumped and just before the LDP’s presidential election.
Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.