Since initiating a government decision in June to cancel the deployment of the Aegis Ashore land-based missile shield, Defense Minister Taro Kono has been in the limelight.
Kono, 57, has been received favorably by the public due to his ability to make decisions quickly and his candid remarks. He is ranked highly in some opinion polls as a candidate to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
He himself does not hide his willingness to run in the next leadership election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but has not won the endorsement of the leader of the party faction to which he belongs, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso.
For a stab at the top post, his foremost challenge will be to solidify his support base within the LDP.
“I’ve been aiming to become prime minister since I was first elected” to the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of parliament, in 1996, Kono has said.
Reflecting his familiarity with policy issues, Kono has assumed key Cabinet posts such as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, foreign minister and defense minister.
With Abe’s health in question, Kono’s potential is attracting attention. He recently told people close to him that he had drawn up a set of policies in preparation for the LDP leadership election.
Within the LDP, Kono leads the pack in terms of communication skills.
Thanks to the popularity of his witty tweets — uncharacteristic for a Cabinet minister — he has about 1.65 million Twitter followers. Although behind Abe’s 2.1 million, Kono is far ahead of former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba and LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, both candidates to replace Abe when his term as LDP president expires in September 2021.
During elections, Kono is in demand for campaign speeches in support of candidates, along with Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.
After it was learned that the Aegis Ashore missile interceptors would require large-scale modifications, Kono suddenly announced in June a decision to call off the plan to deploy the missile defense batteries, saying that going ahead with the plan was not rational considering the cost and time involved. He traveled to Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures, where deployment candidate sites were located, to make apologies.
Kono’s actions were rated highly by the public as wise and honest. Media opinion polls in June and July placed him high among candidates for the next prime minister.
In contrast with his strong reputation among the public, however, Kono is not received very well by fellow lawmakers.
An undisputed rationalist, Kono is seen as lacking skills in making the preparations necessary to build consensus. He did not inform LDP executives beforehand of the decision to drop the Aegis Ashore deployment, leaving LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai enraged.
Due to his perceived lack of consideration for the people around him, Kono is ridiculed by some as heir of a well-to-do family and unversed in the ways of the world. He is from a political dynasty and son of former Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono, who served as LDP president after the party was ousted from power in 1993.
In September 2009, after the LDP lost power again, the younger Kono, in his fifth term in the Lower House, ran in the LDP leadership election, along with former Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki and Yasutoshi Nishimura, who, as economic revitalization minister, is currently leading the government’s responses to the novel coronavirus crisis. Kono was runner-up in the election, after Tanigaki.
In his renewed bid for the LDP presidency, Kono is seeking support from Aso. But Aso, who was known to support Kishida as a candidate for the top LDP post, is now said to be leaning toward Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi.
On July 17, Kono had a steak dinner with Aso at a Tokyo hotel, but he was unable to gain Aso’s clear backing in the LDP presidential race.
At the prodding of Aso, Kono has recently held a number of meetings and dinners with middle-ranking and young LDP lawmakers within and outside the Aso faction.
Attention is focused on whether he can show political mastery and leadership in the difficult task of arranging a new missile defense system in the place of Aegis Ashore.