Having been handed the defense portfolio in the Sept. 11 Cabinet reshuffle, Defense Minister Taro Kono is now under a spotlight as observers watch for him to prove his credentials as a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Formerly foreign minister, Kono is now charged with handling many difficult issues that face the Abe administration — including the matter of military bases in Okinawa Prefecture and the deployment of the Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense system to planned sites in the prefectures of Akita and Yamaguchi.
Kono met with Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki on Sunday during his first trip to the prefecture since becoming defense minister, and called on the local leader to accept the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area of Nago.
“As a way to realize a full return of the Futenma base site (to Japanese control) while maintaining the power of deterrence, we must achieve the relocation as early as possible,” Kono told the governor.
But Tamaki reiterated his opposition to the base transfer within Okinawa, asking the national government to “immediately stop reclamation work (at Henoko) and engage in dialogue with the prefecture.”
As the standoff between Okinawa and Tokyo over the Futenma relocation continues, a discovery by engineers that areas of the surrounding ocean floor at the Henoko site were softer than originally determined threatens to add to delays in construction work, to allow for further reinforcements to the seabed.
The revelation has given the prefecture and others opposing the relocation new ammunition, casting uncertainty over the fate of the project.
On the Aegis Ashore deployments, the government has been under fire from Akita and Yamaguchi residents over incorrect data that was presented when explaining the plan to the prefectures. After an ongoing survey to correct the erroneous data is completed, Kono will face the major challenge of having to convince the disgruntled public to accept the defense system.
During his two-year stint as Japan’s top diplomat, Kono left his mark with his fluent English and active approach — having visited 123 countries and regions.
But the minister has also faced criticism, such as over his remark in April that the Foreign Ministry would stop using gengō Japanese era names when recording dates on its documents, at a time of public enthusiasm over the new era name, Reiwa, which was announced on April 1 before the era started on May 1.
Kono also failed to achieve the introduction of a dedicated aircraft for the foreign minister, a goal he had pursued since he assumed the post.
His new portfolio is expected to test his ability to work steadily on negotiations, with Okinawa, Akita and Yamaguchi.