BY TOMOHIRO OSAKI, STAFF WRITER
A smiling Taro Kono poses for photographs, standing next to a promotional poster of Japan’s new prime minister and talking up the very man who beat him in a leadership race just a few weeks earlier.
The strange juxtaposition marked one of Kono’s first major appearances as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s new communications chief — a role widely seen as a demotion for the massively popular, Twitter-savvy former vaccine rollout minister.
Kono was unveiling the LDP’s new poster featuring Fumio Kishida, who earlier this month became Japan’s 100th prime minister.
Throughout the news conference at the LDP headquarters, Kono tried to cut an affable figure, but an undercurrent of humiliation was palpable: At one point, he was asked what he thinks about the possibility that it could’ve been him, not Kishida, on the new poster had he won the LDP presidential contest.
“Well, a poster of me is actually showcased upstairs, so if you want to take a look,” Kono quipped tersely, managing a smile.
Kono’s lackluster performance in the LDP race last month, as well as his resulting portfolio change, have ignited the question of whether he is now politically dead, evoking the fate of Shigeru Ishiba — another vocal, ostracized party maverick. Political observers say a Kono comeback hinges on whether his party ever embraces his colorful communication style and socially progressive policies that have provoked the ire of the conservative LDP membership.
The LDP race saw Kishida defeat Kono by 257 votes to 170 in a runoff. The fact that Kono finished third — even trailing behind former communications minister Sanae Takaichi — in the number of votes from LDP politicians in the initial round exposed anew the depth of skepticism toward him within the party.
The distrust stems partly from his unconventional and progressive views in the past on hot-button issues such as nuclear power, women in the royal family and same-sex marriage. Such was the aversion to his policies that voting for “anyone but Kono” is said to have become the guiding principle for some lawmakers during the LDP race, even though he is highly popular with the public.
Kono’s predicament has continued even after the election. He has been consigned to the obscure role as the LDP’s public relations head, a far cry from the more prominent positions he has held in the past and those that Kishida’s other rivals from the race — Takaichi and former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda — were given. The former is now the LDP’s policy chief, while the latter is minister in charge of declining birthrates and gender equality.
The job as PR chief may make Kono a perfect poster boy ahead of the Oct. 31 general election, jibing with his influencer-like status on Twitter, where he boasts nearly 2.5 million followers. But still, the appointment suggests that Kono had been “very clearly punished,” said Tobias Harris, a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.
“If the LDP does well, he doesn’t get any credit for it. And if they do poorly, they can easily blame him. So it’s kind of a no-win position,” Harris said.
“If he turned it down, that would also have been bad. If he does want to run again, he’s got to show he’s a team player. And so he couldn’t turn it down, either. So there’s not really any glory in it.”
Despite having been given the cold shoulder within the party, the outspoken maverick continues to enjoy popularity with the public — his biggest and perhaps only strength.
As Election Day approaches, his daily schedule is now packed with requests to campaign alongside LDP candidates, his appearance garnering a throng of curious onlookers and fans wherever he goes.
He is truly a man in demand: On Monday, he spoke at eight different locations spanning Fukuoka to Okayama, before traveling back to the capital region the following day to campaign for candidates in Kanagawa Prefecture and Tokyo from morning to evening. That was followed by two-day trips to six different prefectures in the Kanto and Tohoku regions. On Friday, he was back to the metropolitan area again to stump for Chiba Prefecture candidates.
“I see lots of you guys holding up smartphones and taking pictures of me. That’s great, feel free to take as many photos as you like, and make sure to post them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” Kono exhorted to an audience of hundreds on Tuesday as he stood atop a campaign van alongside LDP candidate Hidehiro Mitani, who is running in a Kanagawa Prefecture district.
“But choose ones where Mitani here looks the most handsome,” he joked.
In his speech, Kono enthused about a wide range of topics, from his accomplishments as vaccine czar to his promotion of telework and his belief in renewable energy. Once finished, he stepped down and soon found himself swarmed by enthusiastic fans, fist-bumping his way through the crowd and occasionally stopping to take selfies with them.
“My impression of politicians in general is that they only talk about policies, but Kono is very different from them in that he can connect with us on a more personal level,” Reo Ikegaki, a 39-year-old voter who lives in Mitani’s electoral district, said after listening to Kono’s speech. “I find his tweets really funny — he even tweets about relationship tips.
“I also like how outspoken he is and how he doesn’t seem afraid to say stuff that other politicians may shy away from.”
It is this nonconformist style that could either keep Kono’s ambitions within reach or doom him. It’s a risky tactic that could continue to ruffle the feathers of party heavyweights, but without it, he would forfeit his political raison d’etre and stand little chance of differentiating himself from other leadership hopefuls, said Takashi Ryuzaki, a political science professor at Ryutsu Keizai University and former political reporter.
“I believe one of the reasons why he lost in the LDP election was because he resorted to very un-Kono-like behavior during the campaign, where he watered down some of his key policies such as opposition to nuclear power,” Ryuzaki said. “In other words, he robbed himself of what makes him who he is as a politician.”
Rather than try to downplay his nature and kowtow to the party old guard, Kono should maintain his progressive stances — such as calling for Japan to be weaned off nuclear power and supporting same-sex marriage — the professor said, and hope that his conservative party will respond to the changing needs of society and grow more tolerant of a leader with those views.
That, Ryuzaki said, is his only path forward.
And therein also lies the key difference between Kono and Ishiba, another party outlier, the professor added.
Ishiba, a former defense minister and security hawk, has carved out a reputation as a strident critic of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, repeatedly challenging him in battles for the LDP leadership without success. Like Kono, Ishiba is popular with the public, but he is increasingly isolated within his own party — his faction is now fast losing steam and suffering an exodus of members.
“The whole reason Ishiba shone as a politician was because he presented himself as anti-Abe, meaning that without Abe, he has no good reason to exist,” Ryuzaki said.
“But with Kono, it’s not like he is wanted for being anti-Kishida — he is wanted for his policies that are different from the LDP mainstream. As long as he sticks to that line, I don’t think Kono will end up becoming a second Ishiba.”
Harris also said he isn’t sold on the viability of Kono bending his principles and trying to win the support of more right-wing parts of the party in a bid for a comeback.
“I don’t think they trust him, and I think it would alienate his core supporters” who like him for being a maverick, Harris said.
“I think the only way he really wins is if the party changes.”