By Osaki Tomohiro, staff writer
For Taro Kono, it’s his outspokenness, sense of humor and savvy presence on social media that have made him a favorite among the public and a front-runner in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election later this month.
But his unorthodox communication style is a double-edged sword and has turned the administrative reform minister into a polarizing figure among some of the Liberal Democratic Party’s influential old guard.
Kono, who is also in charge of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, frequently tops public opinion polls asking voters who they want to see as Japan’s next prime minister.
Experts say his popularity stems in no small part from his active engagement with the public on social media, especially on Twitter, where his Japanese-language account boasts 2.4 million followers. This makes Kono the most followed lawmaker on the platform in Japan, even outshining the 2.2 million followers of Shinzo Abe, who resigned as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister last year. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga lags far behind with under 500,000 followers.
Not long after formally entering the race, the 58-year-old Georgetown University graduate launched a separate Twitter account tailored for updates on his LDP election bid, with the new account already boasting over 100,000 followers.
While Cabinet members usually shy away from online behavior that can come across as frivolous, Kono is also adept at projecting a friendly image of himself that is antithetical to the boilerplate bureaucracy many in his position might settle for.
“He frequently communicates with his followers and even directly responds to their requests on Twitter and turns them into actual policies,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
When a woman complained on Twitter in 2019 about the perplexing way maiden names are written on Japanese passports, the comment caught the attention of Kono, who was then serving as foreign minister. Kono swiftly replied to her, assuring the woman that proper action will be taken, making a positive impression on his followers.
At his instruction, the Foreign Ministry later issued an official explanation on its website and eventually redesigned passports to make maiden names clearer.
“Such responsiveness and communication skills, I think, are at the core of his popularity,” Uchiyama said.
Kono has even doled out relationship advice to followers and entertained them with “Where’s Taro?,” a game where he posts a picture of himself in a large group and asks his followers to look for him. Once, as foreign minister, he made headlines with a cryptic tweet about bacon, sending social media into a flurry of giddy speculation that “bacon” may have been code for classified diplomatic information.
Aside from his casual behavior on social media, Kono has a reputation for having a maverick communication style not beholden to the vested interests and conventional expectations of Nagatacho — the political epicenter of Japan.
His avoidance of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, as well as his tendency to bulldoze his way through policies, may have won over an electorate disaffected with the political establishment, but it’s also caused alarm for party veterans like Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso.
Aso’s support for Kono’s presidential election bid is tepid despite the fact the vaccine chief belongs to the faction headed by the deputy prime minister. Other lawmakers in Aso’s faction haven’t unified around Kono, either.
Other LDP factions are also split over which candidate to support, adding uncertainty to the race.
Kono’s tendency to slight traditional decision-making processes was laid bare in June last year when, as defense minister, he abruptly announced the suspension of the deployment of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system — a project that had been in the making for a few years — apparently after little prior coordination with the LDP.
The move caught LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai off-guard and the influential lawmaker aired his frustrations with Kono’s disregard for protocols.
“National security issues must be implemented based on thorough considerations of opinions from the party, and that shouldn’t be neglected,” Nikai told a news conference at the time.
But it was far from the first time Kono had acted off-the-cuff or upset party veterans.
In a stunt that reinforced the image of Kono’s outspoken nature, he publicly dressed down Nam Gwan-pyo, South Korean ambassador to Japan, upon meeting him over the issue of wartime labor in July 2019, cutting him off mid-sentence.
Going further back, in 2009, when he ran for LDP president for the first time, Kono campaigned on a platform of change and took a scathing swipe at party heavyweights, whom he compared to “rotten apples.”
“If you put rotten apples back in, the rest of the apples in a barrel will go bad, too,” he said on the campaign trail.
The University of Tokyo’s Uchiyama said such showmanship could work in Kono’s favor at a time when there is hunger among the public for a leader with a flair for communication.
That hunger may be particularly prevalent after a year with Suga at the helm.
Suga has struggled with communication and his speeches have failed to coalesce the public around his antivirus policies, Uchiyama said.
Since the LDP leadership race is scheduled to take place right before a Lower House election, junior LDP lawmakers with a tenuous support base might be tempted to cast ballots for Kono due to his popularity among the public, Uchiyama said.
“For young lawmakers who don’t have rock-solid support from constituents yet, their chances of being re-elected (in the general election) will rely a great deal on how good the public impression of the LDP is, so they would naturally want someone who’s popular with the public as their leader,” he said.