Taro Kono, Japan’s Most Popular Prime Minister Candidate, Far From a Shoo-In

TOKYO — If recognition have been the deciding issue, there could be a transparent front-runner to turn into the following prime minister of Japan.

Polls have discovered that the general public favors Taro Kono, the cupboard minister overseeing Japan’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, by a minimum of two to 1 within the race to steer the governing Liberal Democratic Social gathering — which, in impact, is the race to turn into prime minister. His Twitter following of two.4 million dwarfs these of his three rivals mixed.

However within the again rooms the place Japanese political choices are made, Mr. Kono, 58, will not be almost as effectively appreciated. His repute because the Liberal Democrats’ most outspoken nonconformist and his left-leaning views on social points put him out of step with the social gathering’s conservative elders.

These individuals could have appreciable sway on Wednesday because the Liberal Democrats select a successor to Yoshihide Suga, the unpopular present prime minister and social gathering chief, who stated this month that he would step apart. Whoever takes his place will lead the social gathering right into a normal election that have to be held by the tip of November.

In previous social gathering management elections, unity has made the winner a foregone conclusion. However this time, the political horse buying and selling has typically appeared at odds with well-liked sentiment, at the same time as the general public has expressed dissatisfaction with the social gathering’s management on the pandemic and the economic system. That disconnect partly displays complacency among the many Liberal Democrats, who’ve been in energy for all however just a few years since 1955 and appear assured that they’ll win the overall election irrespective of who they select.

“Right now, their thinking is that they can’t lose to the opposition,” stated Masato Kamikubo, a professor of political science at Ritsumeikan College in Kyoto.

Because the minister in control of vaccines, he has typically responded personally to Twitter customers’ questions. Fumie Sakamoto, an an infection management supervisor at St. Luke’s Worldwide Hospital in Tokyo, stated she believed his private contact might have helped ease public fears in regards to the vaccines.

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“He’s always been willing to communicate about vaccination in a positive and easy-to-understand manner,” Ms. Sakamoto stated. After a gradual begin within the first half of the 12 months, greater than half of the inhabitants in Japan is now totally vaccinated, placing it forward of the US and plenty of different nations across the Pacific Rim.

However different points have put Mr. Kono on the improper aspect of his social gathering’s energy brokers.

He has repeatedly voiced his opposition to nuclear energy, a sacred cow for the Liberal Democrats. He now helps same-sex marriage and a proposal to alter a legislation requiring married {couples} to share a surname for authorized functions — positions which might be well-liked with the general public however opposed by the social gathering’s influential proper wing.

Mr. Abe, who resigned final 12 months due to sick well being, has backed Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative, for the management. Ms. Takaichi, who could be Japan’s first feminine prime minister, has sturdy backing from the suitable wing of the social gathering, however her ballot numbers are low. One other girl within the management race, Seiko Noda, 61, has little assist from both the general public or the social gathering.

Many Liberal Democratic members of Parliament contemplate Fumio Kishida, 64, a reasonable with tepid assist within the polls, to be the most secure selection, in keeping with media tallies of lawmakers.

Mr. Kono, whose father and grandfather have been each Liberal Democratic lawmakers, has lengthy made it clear that he desires to be prime minister. However he didn’t comply with a standard path to energy. He left a spot at one in all Japan’s most prestigious non-public universities, Keio, to review at Georgetown in Washington as an alternative.

Mr. Kono’s polished English and intensive journey expertise as international minister would make him a welcome selection for prime minister amongst Japan’s allies, political analysts stated. “For Washington, he would be the most comfortable person,” stated Shihoko Goto, a senior affiliate for Northeast Asia on the Wilson Middle in Washington.

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On China, Mr. Kono doesn’t invoke the sort of hawkish rhetoric that Ms. Takaichi and Mr. Kishida have been utilizing throughout the marketing campaign, however he could be prone to preserve the social gathering’s insurance policies on navy cooperation with the US, Australia and India.

Given his work on diplomatic and navy points — Mr. Kono additionally served as Mr. Abe’s protection minister — he’s “probably the best-prepared person for the prime ministership in that sense,” stated Narushige Michishita, director of the Safety and Worldwide Research Program on the Nationwide Graduate Institute for Coverage Research in Tokyo.

However some say his confidence has led to conceitedness and even impetuosity. Final 12 months, as protection minister, he determined with little session to cancel a plan to purchase an American missile protection system, angering Japanese navy leaders who heard in regards to the resolution after the very fact.

“Maybe he’s too American,” stated Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat who has been an adviser to Mr. Suga. “He’s very direct, honest, sometimes blunt,” Mr. Miyake added. “And sometimes so self-righteous that nobody can catch up or nobody feels willing to help.”

Mr. Kono, who declined to be interviewed for this text, has a repute for being short-tempered with Japanese bureaucrats. He not too long ago crusaded towards the fax machines which might be nonetheless utilized in authorities places of work, making waves by taking over one of many shibboleths of the paperwork.

In an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest day by day newspaper, Mr. Kono acknowledged that he would possibly want to talk extra fastidiously. “However, I do not intend to mince words when it comes to pointing out the fallacies of bureaucratic thinking that is not attuned to reality,” he stated.

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On Twitter, he has additionally turn into moderately infamous because the Japanese politician almost definitely to dam his critics — a lot in order that he spawned a hashtag, #IwasblockedbyKonoTaro, in Japanese. When requested in regards to the observe in an interview with TBS, a broadcaster, he defended it.

“I don’t feel the need to have a conversation with people I don’t know who slander me,” he stated.

Masahiko Abe, a professor of English and American literature on the College of Tokyo, stated he was blocked by Mr. Kono after suggesting that the minister didn’t perceive the federal government’s coverage on college entrance exams.

“I don’t mind that he’s sometimes aggressive and even arrogant from time to time,” Mr. Abe stated. However, he added, “If he says anything wrong, I think we have the right to correct him.”

Individuals who have labored with Mr. Kono stated he believed that coverage debates have been extra productive in the event that they have been rigorous. “The reason why he understands the discussion is because he is demanding,” stated Mika Ohbayashi, a director on the Renewable Power Institute, a analysis and advocacy group, who served on a local weather change advisory panel with Mr. Kono.

As a candidate for the management, Mr. Kono has calibrated a few of his previous positions. Regardless of his opposition to nuclear energy, he stated he supported the restart of Japan’s nuclear vegetation — the overwhelming majority of which have been idled for the reason that triple meltdown in Fukushima 10 years in the past — as a part of a plan to cut back greenhouse fuel emissions.

“He is looking at his liabilities and he is trying to figure out how he can cement support within the party,” stated Mireya Solís, co-director of the Middle for East Asia Coverage Research on the Brookings Establishment.

Hikari Hida contributed reporting.