© Reuters. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono attends a press conference at the official residence of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on September 11, 2019.
Written by Tetsushi Kajimoto and Sakura Murakami
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s coronavirus vaccination minister, Taro Kono, announced his candidacy on Friday to lead the ruling party and thus become the next prime minister, highlighting his image as an outspoken conservative reformer.
Kono became the third candidate to throw his hat in the ring to lead the Liberal Democratic Party, which opened last week when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he would step down.
Kono appears to outperform former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Home Affairs Minister Sana Takaishi in the race.
Nearly a third of respondents to a survey conducted by major local media last week said the 58-year-old, Georgetown-educated Kono, is best suited to succeed Suga.
“I will run for the LDP leader,” Kono said, adding that he would be a sympathetic leader who would “laugh and cry together” with the Japanese people, and aim to create a “warm” country where everyone who worked hard had a chance of success.
Kono, once known as a vocal critic of nuclear power, appeared more circumspect in a two-page policy brief delivered to assembled journalists to hear him announce his candidacy.
“We will implement a realistic energy policy that will be reassuring to the industry,” the paper said, also highlighting the importance of promoting digitalization and green technologies.
Kono promised to strengthen Japan’s deterrence against “unilateral attempts to change the status quo.” Officials have warned China about its assertion in the East and South China Seas.
The winner of the September 29 vote for LDP members and grassroots lawmakers effectively secures the premiership because the LDP has a majority in the lower house of parliament, which must hold elections by November 28.
Lawmakers are counting on the new leader to bolster party support after Suga’s ratings hit record lows, undermined by the haphazard handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kono, who was in charge of the difficult vaccination campaign, remained especially popular among younger voters.
This is partly due to his ability to reach the public through Twitter (NYSE:), where he has 2.3 million followers – a rarity in heavily written Japanese politics and dominated by older men who are less adept at using social media.
In the policy paper, Kono pledged to continue the fight against the coronavirus by acquiring enhanced COVID-19 footage.
Some in the LDP feel Kono is too young, given that the average age of prime ministers in office since 2000 has been around 62 years. Their concerns include his singular approach to a system that operates by consensus, and an outspoken streak that he can sometimes see challenging the party line.
Despite this reputation, Kono has pursued major Abe policies when he served as defense and foreign minister in his two governments.
He distinguished his conservative stances from those of his father, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, who wrote a landmark 1993 apology for “comfort women,” a euphemism for women forced to work in military brothels in Japan.
Kishida is reasonably popular and can count on the support of his faction in the party, while Takaishi, who hopes to become Japan’s first female prime minister, has support from the party’s conservative wing, including influential former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
One of the remaining questions is whether former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, also popular among party members, will run or support Kono.