Since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assumed office last month, 57-year-old Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reform, has found himself increasingly in the spotlight, prompting speculation he might succeed Suga.

Kono has sometimes been outspoken on differences with other members of the Liberal Democratic Party, earning him a reputation as something of a maverick.

He has made no secret of his desire to eventually become prime minister. For the moment, he finds himself in charge of carrying out something he has long advocated, which is all manner of government reform.

In addition to administrative reform, Kono is minister in charge of civil service reform and minister of state for regulatory reform. He is also minister of state in charge of Okinawa, which includes dealing with the contentious issue of U.S. bases, and the Northern Territories issue, which involves dealing with Russia.

These are roles that give Kono, with his media and social media savvy, the opportunity to raise his political profile, by generating headlines and capturing air time as he criticizes bureaucracy and pushes for wide-ranging reforms, from getting civil servants to work more efficiently to eliminating the use of hanko seals.

But who is the man now in charge of taking on the bureaucrats and trying to build support to become the nation’s next leader?

A political inheritance

Like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and current Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, to whose faction he belongs, Kono comes from a long line of politicians.

His father, Yohei Kono, served as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary and speaker of the House of Representatives.

Though he was president of the LDP between 1993 and 1995, Yohei did not become Prime Minister when the LDP returned to power in 1994. With the win secured through a grand coalition that included the Japan Socialist Party, JSP head Tomiichi Murayama took the post instead.

Kono’s grandfather Ichiro also served as deputy prime minister and was in charge of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as heading up the administrative management agency. Kono’s granduncle Kenzo led the Upper House.

Taro Kono talks to the needy in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 10. | KYODO 
Taro Kono talks to the needy in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 10. | KYODO 

Kono spent his college years in the U.S. He graduated from Georgetown University, where one of his professors was Madeline Albright — who would later serve as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State.

He won his first Lower House election in 1996 as a representative for Kanagawa Prefecture. That same year, Suga won his first Lower House election, also as a representative from Kanagawa Prefecture.

In 2002, Kono donated a portion of his liver to his father, who fell ill from a chronic hepatitis C infection. He would then become an advocate for changing Japan’s organ donor laws to allow more people to become donors.

Reform mission

Kono would spend the next decade rising through the ranks, and gaining a reputation as something of a young maverick willing to criticize party elders.

Following the earthquake, tsunami and triple meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011, when the LDP was not in power, Kono increased his calls for the nation to end its reliance on nuclear power and switch to renewable energy.

He also described Japan’s nuclear power policy, which was producing spent nuclear fuel with no place to store it, as the equivalent of building a house without a toilet.

The stance was popular with the public and welcomed by other parties traditionally opposed to the LDP, but it angered many LDP members connected to the nuclear power industry.

After the LDP returned to power in 2012 under Abe, Kono would, in 2015, serve as chair of the National Public Safety Commission, as well as minister in charge of consumer affairs and food safety and of regulatory reform.

He then became Foreign Minister in 2017, and then Defense Minister until last month, utilizing, especially in the latter post, his experience and personal connections in the United States.

Taro Kono speaks at a panel discussion on Oct. 11. | KYODO
Taro Kono speaks at a panel discussion on Oct. 11. | KYODO

Now, as Kono grapples with administrative reform, he is sending out SNS messages and attracting press coverage about reform initiatives like his quest to do away with hanko seals. But Masato Kamikubo, a political scientist at Ritsumeikan University who has written about Kono’s governing style, says that he should follow the example of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

“In order to be a successful reform minister, he should first offer a big picture for administration reform, like Nakasone did,” Kamikubo explains. “Nakasone’s term as prime minister saw the completion of efforts to privatize Japan Railways and NTT. Kono should also establish a bigger organization within the Cabinet Office to realize his plans. Staff should include younger business executives, academics, as well as those from the private sector, similar to the staff Nakasone used for privatizing JR and NTT.”

Public support, political isolation

In his social media attacks on bureaucrats and government waste, his neoliberal views that welcome some forms of privatization and even in his anti-nuclear stance, Kono echoes ways in which former Osaka governor, mayor and Nippon Ishin no Kai co-founder Toru Hashimoto gained public support over a decade ago. Kamikubo agrees there are some similarities between the two.

But Kono is a national politician in an old, established party. Gaining the support of other members to succeed Suga as prime minister could be problematic.

“Kono is a very isolated politician within the LDP. He’s from a powerful political family but is very individualistic and very Westernized. Very few people don’t like Kono, but also very few strongly support Kono because he doesn’t offer money or support to younger LDP members or other colleagues,” Kamikubo said.

“He’s a very dry and rational politician, and studied at a U.S. university. Even Aso said Kono wasn’t a bad guy but needs to study Japanese society more. So Kono’s political challenge for becoming prime minister is how he creates a group of LDP politicians who will support him.”

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