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New Foreign Minister Kono a reform-minded challenger of party lines

by

Staff Writer

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Taro Kono is known as an outspoken, reform-minded politician unafraid of questioning the party line.

Like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Kono is a political blue blood. His father, Yohei, also served as foreign minister, and is known for a landmark 1993 apology he issued as chief Cabinet secretary for the suffering inflicted upon women forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels before and during World War II.

Educated at Georgetown University, Kono is a fluent English speaker and is considered to have strong ties to Washington. While in the U.S. capital, he worked for Richard Shelby, a Republican senator from Alabama who at the time was a Democratic congressman.

As foreign minister replacing Fumio Kishida, one of Kono’s first tasks will be working with the U.S. amid North Korea’s increasingly frequent missile tests.

A longtime critic of the nation’s nuclear policy, Kono has vehemently opposed restarts and construction of nuclear reactors and has been critical of the government for being too close to the power industry. He has repeatedly voiced concern over accumulating spent fuel and the government’s plan for nuclear reprocessing, which is something he considers unfeasible based on cost and safety issues.

His candid and liberal-leaning opinions — often articulated on his blog — have made him stand out among his more conservative peers in the Liberal Democratic Party.

In 2009 he ran in the LDP leadership election, where he called for some elder lawmakers to step down to rejuvenate the party. That willingness to take on his party’s old guard has made him a well-known public figure. Kono finished second in the party race that year after Sadakazu Tanigaki.

He has also been an avid user of social networking services such as Twitter, and has appeared in videos on his party’s YouTube channel.

Kono is considered internationally minded and said in his blog that he has invited exchange students from various countries — including China, South Korea and Iraq — to work for him as interns as part of his effort to promote mutual understanding.

On other policy issues, Kono supports the opening up of Japan to blue-collar foreign workers to address labor shortages stemming from the aging population and low birth rate — a proposal Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has yet to embrace. He also supports legalizing dual citizenship as well as allowing couples to keep their surnames after marriage, both policies that have yet to gain mainstream support.

Kono is an advocate of the Kyoto Protocol, and has led debates on issues related to climate change.

In an article he contributed to The Japan Times last year — when he was minister of state in charge of natural disasters — on the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, Kono said that such events were worsening due to climate change. He called for further vigilance and cooperation among residents of communities at risk.

Kono, who has also served as a minister for administrative reform, was first elected to the Lower House in 1996 when he was 33. He has kept his seat for seven consecutive terms.

His grandfather, Ichiro, was a major political figure during the post-war era who served as agricultural minister and construction minister, among other posts. Taro’s father Yohei was the longest serving speaker for the Lower House.

In 2002, Kono donated part of his liver to his father in a transplant operation.