Third in a series of six
Some say that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. If that is the case, then Minister for Coronavirus Vaccinations Taro Kono is a very lucky politician.
Kono is an anomaly inside the Liberal Democratic Party. Like other LDP elites, he comes from a political dynasty as the son of former chief Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono and grandson of former Deputy Prime Minister Ichiro Kono—a pedigree that gives him credibility and job security. Unlike his peers, Kono spent many years abroad, including earning his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown. He is fluent in English and has a wide network of connections across the globe.
His personality, worldview and penchant for reform also set him apart. Often referred to as a “maverick,” Kono’s outspoken nature and willingness to challenge party policies play well with the public and other external audiences; however, it has made him enemies inside the LDP along the way. There are plenty of competitors inside the LDP waiting for Kono to overstep — this party presidential race being no exception.
Kono laid low throughout the drama within the Liberal Democratic Party the past few weeks, giving no indication that he intended to run in the party presidential race set for later this month. He kept his head down and uncharacteristically refrained from comment. Then, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga suddenly announced that he would not be joining the race and, that same day, reports emerged that Kono would be throwing his hat into the ring.
Suga’s fall presented the opportunity Kono needed, since his star was hitched to Suga. Kono has been a prominent LDP member in his own right, but it was Suga that helped keep Kono in the Cabinet when Abe wanted to push him out a few years ago, and it was Suga that continued to put Kono in positions of relevance, despite doing things that frustrated LDP leaders on several occasions.
Suga has been Kono’s patron in the government for the past few years, and Kono’s own support base was wrapped up in the current administration. It would be impossible to run against his benefactor, but with Suga out of the picture, the path is now clear for Kono.
In fact, Suga himself has offered to continue his patronage, announcing that he would endorse Kono’s run.
To his credit, Kono positioned himself well to exploit the current opportunity. It has been a yearslong process that began in earnest when Kono ran for party presidency in 2009. It was an unenviable time to lead the party, since the LDP had just lost control of the government to the Democratic Party of Japan and becoming party president would in no way guarantee becoming prime minister. Kono ended up losing to Sadakazu Tanigaki, but he delivered the message that he was a contender.
Since then, Kono has proceeded to build his portfolio and profile slowly but surely. He has served as minister for administrative reform, foreign minister and defense minister, among other postings. In those billets, he challenged administration policies enough to be seen as his own man but not enough to alienate himself from his LDP patrons.
He has also built quite the cult following for himself among the public. Many in the older generations respect him for his filial piety in giving part of his liver to his father who was suffering from cirrhosis. It does not hurt that his father was Yohei Kono, a respected LDP politician who nearly made it to the country’s top job.
Among the younger generations, Kono’s propensity to engage with people on social media and proclivity for pithy responses has enabled him to amass 2.3 million followers on Twitter and to earn frequent appearances on television. This is in part why Kono jumped to number one in public polling on who would be the best choice for next Prime Minister.
That does not mean Kono is without liabilities. While the media tends to refer to him as a “maverick,” LDP heavyweights and others in the government would probably use the term “loose cannon.”
Few in the LDP will have forgotten Kono’s unilateral decision to cancel the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense program when he was defense minister. Or when he commented on whether the Olympics would take place during the pandemic. Then there is the recent allegation of harassment when Kono had a recorded outburst against bureaucrats. While that was the only documented incident, anybody who has witnessed his interactions with other government officials behind closed doors knows that it was not the first time he vented his frustration.
Exacerbating this issue is the relationship Kono has with his own faction head, Taro Aso. Aso’s faction is the second largest, and failure to gain Aso’s blessing would essentially kill Kono’s chances for victory. While some might think that supporting a faction member would be a given, Aso has his own interests he is looking to protect.
To succeed in the LDP presidential race, Kono will have to demonstrate that he is willing to toe the party line and not threaten those who seek to maintain their mini-empires within the party and government. He will have to cut deals, stroke egos, and engage in a different style of politicking than he prefers.
A big problem for Kono is that those are all things he has not had to do before. He has never been a faction head who has had to negotiate Cabinet postings for supporters or policy agenda items for an upcoming parliamentary session. Kono has not served as a chief Cabinet secretary responsible for speaking on behalf of the entire administration and orchestrating all the leaders in government. He has not held the LDP executive positions that would require him to manage party in-fighting.
He has the next two weeks to get a handle on those responsibilities in preparation for the presidential race. The question is not just if Kono is able to do that, it is if he is willing to do it.
If Kono can play to his strengths while reassuring the party elders, it is feasible for him to become the frontrunner. Considering that the pandemic response is still issue number one, his effort and experience in managing the problem for the Suga administration can be a strong selling point to highlight. He will also need to continue cultivating his public popularity and convince party members that he can alone propel the LDP to success in the Lower House election. At the same time, he will have to offer policy and job incentives that signal that he will be a unity leader, and not just a freight train trying to haul the party whichever direction his own tracks are going.
Kono’s years of preparation and patience have yielded him the chance to become party president and prime minister. As long as he can bring himself to compromise with the old guard LDP politicians and play the game a little while longer, he may finally find himself leading both the party and the country.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
Read more of “The LDP’s games of thrones” series.
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