Commentary / Japan

Taro Kono: A different kind of defense minister

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shifted Taro Kono from the foreign minister to defense minister billet in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle, he was attempting to limit the influence of a potential successor. Abe could not push Kono out altogether, but the operative assumption was that the Defense Ministry, institutionally the weakest of all ministries in the government, would be a place to keep Kono’s influence in check. The issue for Abe is that this inadvertently put the defense minister position in uncharted waters.

Kono is unlike any defense minister Japan has ever had. His political strength, his high profile, his personal and professional background, and his independent thinking on policy, set him apart. For the first time, the Defense Ministry is headed by a prime minister-ready politician, and that will lead to a unique, possibly precedent-setting tenure for this defense chief.

Although Kono will be limited in just how far he can exercise the authority of his new position, his political aspirations means he will leverage his responsibilities in ways that increase his public support, will demonstrate strong leadership in fostering relationships with foreign militaries, and will likely test the boundaries of how far he can go in pursuing policy objectives that may differ from the prime minister’s personal defense agenda.

There are many things that set Kono apart from his predecessors. First is a unique resume. Although Kono never served as a vice minister of defense, he has long been an active member of the Liberal Democratic Party’s National Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee. He also served as the National Public Safety Commission chairman responsible for civil authorities in the event of a major national emergency. Most recently, Kono held the prominent role of foreign minister. While this means Kono may not be as intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Defense Ministry, it does mean that he has a better understanding of the rest of the national government.

Kono also has the highest profile of any defense minister ever. He comes from political lineage, with his father, Yohei Kono, being a one-time prime minister-hopeful. Kono has built his own contemporary brand on top of that legacy though, and he has 1.1 million Twitter followers to prove it. His social media following is second only to the prime minister himself.

Politically, Kono is the most influential politician ever to hold the defense minister billet. Never has there been a defense minister with as strong an LDP factional backing, and none have ever had all the elements in place to make it to Japan’s highest office. Kono is a leading candidate for post-Abe leadership, and members of the government know this. That will influence how officials across the various ministries and agencies engage the new defense minister.

Finally, Kono is the best-equipped defense minister to handle foreign relationships. It is not simply his experience as foreign minister, but his English ability, his breadth of experience abroad and his comfort-level in international settings that will make him stand out in this position. Naturally, the relationship with Japan’s main ally, the United States, will require Kono’s attention, but as Japan seeks to expand relationships with Australia, India, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, France and others, Kono’s strengths will come into play importantly and often.

The defense minister billet does have its limitations for Kono. Many of the most influential defense agenda items are already locked in for the next few years. The National Defense Program Guidelines were published in 2018, and there is not set to be an update to the Mid-Term Program Guidelines (Japan’s five-year defense acquisition plan) until 2023. Further, most of Abe’s policy achievements since 2012 have been in the realm of security, and Abe will be loathe to cede his influence.

Kono will have to work around these limitations to achieve what he requires from the position. If he hopes to keep pace with the other candidates for post-Abe leadership, Kono will need to maintain an active and positive image in the public eye. He will also need to have something meaningful to add to his credit as defense minister while avoiding anything that could tarnish his record. Finally, he will want to find a balance between toeing the Abe administration policy line while still making his own mark in what may only be a one-year stint in the position.

Kono has already started working toward those ends. Immediately after being assigned the post, he began arranging a visit to Okinawa Prefecture, home to some of the most politically contentious items in the minister’s portfolio. Although Kono is well aware that he has little hope of resolving base-hosting issues in Okinawa, he is astute enough to know that failure to give it the attention it deserves can be damning.

As such, Kono is likely to stay the course on Okinawa. This means he will shepherd policies already in place and quickly address any crises that arise while eschewing the role of “savior” for problems that have frustrated policymakers for decades.

Kono has also been an active presence in disaster relief. Less than four days after being named defense minister, Kono was on the ground in Chiba to survey damage from Typhoon Faxai. The day before Typhoon Hagibis was set to make landfall in Japan, Kono held a well-advertised pre-emergency response meeting with his ministry’s leadership, while his predecessors typically did not convene emergency meetings until after disasters struck. This personal attention and level of readiness will win him public support and elevate perceptions of his leadership capability, even though it will likely put Kono at odds with the prime minister, who has enjoyed the spotlight as Japan’s crisis response leader.

True to form, Kono has also been busy engaging with foreign counterparts. This includes office calls, phone conversations and other meetings with representatives from partner countries. In many ways, his engagement schedule still resembles what it did when he was foreign minister. For a Japanese security establishment that has been looking to expand its relationships abroad, Kono will look to lead that effort.

Another notable move that Kono made this week that will not get media attention but is nevertheless important: his picks for special advisers to the defense minister include Tomohito Shinoda, Toshihiro Nakayama and Koji Murata. All three are well-respected policy thinkers in the academic and political communities, but like Kono they are unlike their predecessors.

Previously, special advisers have mostly been retired bureaucrats (typically, the outgoing administrative vice defense minister) or retired Self-Defense Forces officers (usually the outgoing chairman of the Joint Staff). Now you have three advisers, all well-versed in international affairs, who will be offering advice on much more strategic issues than simply the inner workings of the ministry or the SDF. In that way, it represents a signal that Kono’s view of his role as defense minister is pushing Japanese strategic implementation outward rather than focusing on internal policy processes.

All this has important implications for the Defense Ministry. Kono’s presence will no doubt raise the ministry’s profile in the government and in the public eye. His political influence will help bolster defense initiatives in the normal bureaucratic jockeying that takes place over budget and policy priority. Also, while public trust in the SDF now routinely ranks higher than any other government official, there still remains a long-standing debate over the Defense Ministry and Japan’s role in security both at home and abroad. With such a high-profile politician leading the way, it is an opportunity to present a different view of the ministry’s priorities and efforts.

Kono’s appointment will also cause an adjustment in the manner in which Japan’s defense bureaucrats engage their minister. With a prime minister-hopeful at the helm, many officials will be looking at the long game and wondering how strongly they can push back against someone who may soon hold the highest office in the land. Fortunately, many senior government officials are already familiar with Kono through their briefings of LDP committee meetings and through interactions over the past two years while Kono was foreign minister, so the adjustment period should be relatively brief.

For Abe, Kono’s appointment is a double-edged sword. The better Kono does as defense minister, the more it boosts Abe’s Cabinet approval ratings. However, that also lifts Kono’s standing when Abe will likely be grooming another successor for the prime minister’s office. Kono’s popularity and penchant for leading from the front also steals the spotlight from Abe, who has positioned himself as the face of stability amid crisis. This will likely lead to tension between Kono and Abe, and that push and pull will continue to play out as long as Kono remains in the defense minister billet.

Whatever questions may remain, there is one conclusion that is without doubt: Kono represents a different kind of defense minister. Only time will tell what that means in terms of concrete changes to Japan’s security landscape, but the next year promises to be an interesting one in Japanese defense, if not a precedent-setting one.

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.

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