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Should Taro Kono be successful in his campaign to become president of the Liberal Democratic Party — and, by extension, Japan’s next prime minister — those scrutinizing his resume will come across a number of executive-level positions he holds at sporting organizations ranging from the Japan Racehorse Association to the Kanagawa Track and Field Association.

But it’s the 58-year-old’s tenure as chairman of the J. League’s Shonan Bellmare between 2000 and 2005 that residents of his Kanagawa Prefecture district, which includes his hometown of Hiratsuka, remember fondly even today.

After all, without Kono’s efforts there’s little chance that the club would have survived — to say nothing of returning to the top division and producing a new generation of world-class players.

And whether he’s wearing Bellmare ties in Kasumigaseki, the political heart of Japan, or presenting the club’s uniform to visiting foreign dignitaries, it’s clear the team continues to hold a special place in his heart.

“Kono carried Bellmare at its most difficult time, when the club had no money and lost a lot of games,” the club’s current chairman, Kiyoshi Makabe, said in an interview earlier this month.

“Of course it’s good when you win, but he felt the value of being a club loved by the community. Bellmare may have been performing poorly but people still loved the club, and that’s because he kept his head down and worked every day and changed that way of thinking.”

In an era of declining attendance across the J. League and grim outlooks for club owners battered by the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy, the appointment was considered a great risk for Kono — whose future, supporters feared, could be damaged by his association with a failing soccer club.

Taro Kono (second from left) and current Bellmare Chairman Kiyoshi Makabe (second from right) were instrumental in rescuing the club from crisis after the departure of parent company Fujita in late 1998. | SHONAN BELLMARE
Taro Kono (second from left) and current Bellmare Chairman Kiyoshi Makabe (second from right) were instrumental in rescuing the club from crisis after the departure of parent company Fujita in late 1998. | SHONAN BELLMARE

“A lot of the people around him thought it was very risky and tried to get him to quit,” Makabe said. “But he said that if he couldn’t save the club, there would never be another professional sports team in Hiratsuka.

“He felt that sense of purpose and that’s why he stepped into that role.”

Kono’s appointment had been necessitated by the late-1998 withdrawal of Bellmare’s parent company, Fujita, whose construction and real estate businesses had suffered in Japan’s “lost decade” of economic doldrums. It was a stunning reversal of fortune for Bellmare, which that year had sent four players — including Japan star Hidetoshi Nakata and South Korean defender Hong Myung-bo — to the FIFA World Cup in France.

The development couldn’t have come at a worse time for the J. League, which that same year saw Yokohama Flugels — one of the league’s 10 founding members — merged into crosstown rival Yokohama Marinos after its major sponsors pulled out.

“From the J. League’s perspective, having a second team collapse would have put the league’s survival at risk,” Makabe said. “So in 1999 we got rid of all our high-priced players, and during that season we looked for another parent company, and (J. League Chairman) Saburo Kawabuchi gave us an October deadline.

“Kono said that if nobody else was able to do it, he would take on the role of chairman and try to help the club survive.”

Kono — who in 1996 was elected to represent the district that includes Hiratsuka in the Lower House — had supported Bellmare since its J. League debut, having been inspired by the impact of professional soccer’s arrival in the city.

Despite being the scion of a local political dynasty that included father, Yohei (former speaker of the House of Representatives), and grandfather Ichiro (a longtime minister best known for overseeing the delivery of the 1964 Tokyo Games), Kono never relied on connections to acquire tickets for Bellmare’s early seasons, instead securing standing-room tickets behind the goal by himself or with the help of friends.

At the team’s first home game — a golden-goal win over Marinos — he joyfully embraced the stranger next to him, a memory he recalled in a 2000 essay published shortly after becoming chairman. It was, according to Makabe, the kind of interaction that has defined Kono’s political career.

“He thought that in a hierarchical society like Japan, you had to create relationships between people … and he talked about how great it was to form those new relationships through sports and to get to know the stranger next to you.”

Kono continued to form relationships as Bellmare’s chairman, personally going to every community center in Hiratsuka to sell his vision of the club’s transition from being owned by a company to being owned by the public.

Retired midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata is arguably Bellmare's best-known export, having left the club to join Italy's Perugia in 1998. | KYODO
Retired midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata is arguably Bellmare’s best-known export, having left the club to join Italy’s Perugia in 1998. | KYODO

In spite of the team’s relegation to the J. League’s second division, the loss of its star players and the club’s lack of funding, Kono’s candor won over locals who continued to back the team, which was renamed from Bellmare Hiratsuka as part of a push to expand its hometown area.

“As a politician, even as close as he is to becoming prime minister, that’s his way of doing things,” Makabe said. “He wants to hear what people want, what their concerns are, and if he can respond to those issues he’ll earn their support.”

Kono, alongside Makabe and club President Kikuo Konagaya, set out to establish a new blueprint for the club, looking beyond soccer to find ways to contribute to a healthy sporting culture in the community — one of the main tenets of the J. League’s “100 Year Vision.” The nonprofit Shonan Bellmare Sports Club was established in 2002, fielding teams in disciplines ranging from triathlon to rugby sevens.

As he sought to balance the club’s finances, Kono’s infamous temper reared its head in meetings — often in frustration over what Makabe describes as employees not giving their best effort or being evasive in their presentations.

“He was always very logical in pointing these things out,” Makabe said. “Someone might see that and think he was really angry, but he was passionate, and he would scold people because he wanted to make the point that if you don’t do this right, you won’t be able to keep doing this great job.”

Not all of Kono’s ideas were positively received by fans, however. An early proposal that supporters should avoid going to away games — instead focusing on home games from which the club earned more revenue — drew immediate backlash, prompting an apology.

While the suggestion made sense from a financial perspective, Makabe says, the incident underlines Kono’s willingness to adjust course and compromise — a trait that could serve him well if he becomes prime minister.

“Whether it’s the Bellmare supporters or the pro-nuclear lobby, Kono has learned to balance his ideals with reality,” Makabe said. “When (Environment Minister) Shinjiro Koizumi and (former Defense Minister) Shigeru Ishiba say that it’s time to let Kono take charge, it shows that he’s been working hard to reduce that gap.”

Even as the team struggled to earn promotion back to the J1, Kono was less focused on replicating the success of Kashima Antlers, Japan’s most successful side, and more concerned with turning Bellmare into a globally conscious club — a view bolstered by his own experiences studying overseas at Georgetown and what is now the Warsaw School of Economics.

“Kono understood that the Japanese way of thinking wasn’t always right,” Makabe said, noting the eventual hirings of former general manager and President Satoshi Okura — who studied at the Johan Cruyff Institute in Spain — and former manager Cho Kwi-jae, who trained as a coach in Germany before eventually leading the team to J1 stability as well as the 2018 Levain Cup title.

Although Bellmare returned to private ownership in 2018 following an investment by fitness chain Rizap, it has remained committed to the path Kono helped chart, shifting its focus to developing local players capable of joining larger teams and generating transfer fees.

While Nakata remains Bellmare’s most famous export, the team was well represented at the recent Tokyo Olympics by former midfielder Wataru Endo — considered by some to be the best Japanese player in Europe — and current goalkeeper Kosei Tani.

Just as those players have carried Bellmare’s name around the world, Makabe is confident that Kono is capable of doing the same.

“At the time he was chairman he was a first-term member of the Diet, but I thought he could reach the top,” Makabe said. “There aren’t too many politicians who started their careers wanting to become the prime minister. But Kono, from when he was very young, wanted to reach the top and make Japan better.

“Hidetoshi Nakata wanted to go overseas and play for Japan and win a World Cup. I think Endo and Tani are the same. Kono is that kind of politician.”

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