PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – The Japanese political world is abuzz with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s appointment of Taro Kono as the minister in charge of COVID-19 vaccinations. The decision came just a few days after Kono made media headlines in Japan and around the world for saying that whether Japan would hold the Tokyo Olympics this coming summer “could go either way.” While Kono was actually talking about an Olympics with athletes only or one where tourists could attend, the resulting media fervor put the Suga administration in damage control mode, since its standing policy is to drive full steam ahead on holding the games in six months.
With Kono now getting such a high visibility portfolio related to the pandemic thrown into his lap, the logical question is, Why?
There are two basic explanations floating around right now: One, Suga believes Kono will do a good job and thus put him in charge of an incredibly important issue; or two, the Suga administration does not expect the vaccine rollout to go well, thus putting Kono in an unwinnable position to knock him down a few pegs after kicking a hornet’s nest in the media.
As with most binary propositions, neither explanation is exactly right or exactly wrong. Understanding the issue requires a little more depth. There are five things necessary to consider here.
The first is simple, but important: There was no institutional requirement for creating a Cabinet-level portfolio for the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. This was done for political reasons, not practical ones.
Second, one must look at Yoshihide Suga’s standing atop the government. To put it bluntly, things are not looking good. Suga’s approval ratings are already approaching the danger zone of less than 30%; he is under fire for what many opposition lawmakers and members of the public consider a slow response in declaring a state of emergency amid the recent COVID-19 wave and he has also had to manage scandals stemming from the Shinzo Abe era. All this comes in a year where Suga still has to figure out how to get the coronavirus under control; deal with the Olympics; campaign within the party to win his presidency again; and lead the LDP through a successful House of Representatives election.
Adding insult to injury, a recent Mainichi poll did not even place Suga as the public’s top choice for the next prime minister after the LDP’s leadership race set for September. The number one pick was Taro Kono.
This leads to the third consideration in evaluating Suga’s surprise appointment: Taro Kono’s position within the Suga administration.
Kono has enjoyed a good relationship with Suga, who looked out for him during the Abe years and petitioned to keep him in the Cabinet even when Abe would have preferred to see Kono gone. When Suga became prime minister, he put Kono in charge of a policy portfolio that is near and dear to the technocratic leader’s heart: regulatory reform. While this is not exactly a kingmaker position, it does symbolize Suga’s trust in Kono, as well as his belief that if any LDP member would be able and willing to challenge the status quo, it would be Kono.
Kono has taken his regulatory reform job seriously so far and has expanded his fan base at the same time. In doing so, Kono seems to have what it takes to be a top contender to succeed Suga as prime minister, at least at face value. He has held key Cabinet postings and hails from the second largest LDP faction. He comes from a storied political dynasty, with his father Yohei and grandfather Ichiro both being influential lawmakers in their time — in fact, Taro Aso inherited his faction from Yohei Kono. For good measure, Taro Kono has managed to gather somewhat of a cult following through his social media presence.
The fourth consideration here is the inherent challenge associated with rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine. There are myriad issues at play, from sourcing the vaccine, to distribution, to documentation, but there is also the stigma associated with it. As The Japan Times noted recently, Japan polls fairly low in its confidence in vaccinations, and the speed in which the COVID-19 vaccines have been developed will give more ammunition to the skeptics out there. The government not only has the logistical issues to worry about, but the information and human factors as well.
Finally, one must remember the LDP’s influence in all this. Whatever Suga’s strengths may have been to justify his victory in the party presidential race last September, the prime minister owes his position to factional politics. If Suga hopes to last more than one year, he will once again be beholden to those same factions that put him there in the first place.
How does that have anything to do with Kono? Kono is known for his outspoken and decisive nature, which many among the Japanese public see as a strength for the prime minister-hopeful. That strength, however, is easily seen as a weakness within the LDP. Many observers will not have forgotten that Kono was the one who abruptly announced the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore deployment last year — without vetting it through the LDP first. That prompted an ad hoc LDP research commission and sent lawmakers and government bureaucrats alike scrambling to pick up the pieces that Kono had knocked over.
The LDP will again not have been pleased at Kono’s comments on the Olympics a few days ago. Even passing remarks from a Cabinet minister have the potential to grow legs — more so when that minister happens to be a household name. Four days ago, Kono managed to weave the two most controversial political issues of 2021 into one response: COVID-19 and the Tokyo Olympics. The LDP old guard will have taken notice.
So, what do these five things together mean? Only Suga and the highest level of LDP executives know for sure the motivations behind tapping Kono as the minister in charge of the COVID-19 vaccinations. But the likeliest explanation is this: Suga is hurting in the polls and needs decisive action to right the ship.
The virus vaccine is critical for turning the tide against the pandemic, especially if Japan has even an ounce of hope of hosting a successful Olympics this summer. The problem is, to achieve this, the vaccine rollout needs a prominent, decisive figure to shepherd the process in the public eye. Suga cannot get that from the average LDP politician. He needs someone who is popular and has no problem pushing the envelope across government ministries and agencies; in other words, someone exactly like Kono.
Meanwhile, the LDP will have wanted to impose some sort of check against Kono’s comments and to add some buffer between the party and the administration in case policies related to COVID-19 go sour; after all, they are still looking at keeping their jobs and their super majority in the Diet’s Lower House after the next election. If precedent holds true, these are things senior LDP members would have communicated directly to Suga.
Thus, the best possible outcome for Suga was to give Kono this Cabinet portfolio. Even if the decision was in the works before Kono’s comments on the Olympics a few days ago, the appointment kills two birds with one stone, since it gives Suga the individual he needs to champion the rollout while addressing the party’s interests vis-a-vis COVID-19 and Kono.
Many will argue that seems counterintuitive since success in the rollout will elevate Kono even further above Suga. But this is a case where a rising tide lifts all boats: Kono’s success is Suga’s success. In some ways, the opposite is also true — Kono’s failure is Suga’s failure — but the critical distinction is that it will not have to be the LDP’s failure because with Kono the party still has its maverick on which to pin any negative outcomes.
Japan will continue to navigate the treacherous waters of the coronavirus pandemic, albeit with a new, outspoken captain at the helm. Steady the ship, Suga says to Kono, ‘tis both your reward and your penance.
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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