Tokyo, Sat. 14 (U.S.): When Taro Kono, Japan’s main rival for the position of prime minister, was a high school student, he asked his father to send him abroad to study at university, but he was flatly refused.
Instead, Kono the Elder, a prominent politician in the ruling party, escorted his son to a reception at the US Embassy in an attempt to prove that his English was not good enough.
But this step backfired.
In a recent book, Kono wrote, “I wandered into the room excitedly telling people, in my broken English, how I wanted to study abroad but my father was against it, so I had a problem.”
Everyone said no, he should wait. But that response, and perhaps his son’s audacity, somehow convinced the father, and Kono ended up spending four years at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Reuters reports.
The Japanese vaccine minister, now 58, is fluent in English and hopes to use this early combination of self-confidence, strategy and stubbornness to become the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister.
In addition to a résumé studded with high profile portfolios like Foreign Affairs and Defense, he runs a bilingual Twitter feed and, in a world of sober politicians, speaks frankly, unlike Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
“Kono communicates closely, he talks,” said Corey Wallace, a foreign policy specialist at Kanagawa University.
“He’s always around, he’s giving press conferences about the vaccine release and so on,” Wallace added. Suga seemed to only communicate when he had to.
Kono regularly leads opinion polls as the voter’s choice for the next prime minister, which will help him in both regular members of the LDP contest, and young lawmakers worried about keeping their jobs as this year’s general election approaches.
Iro Hino, a professor of political science at Waseda University, said the image, in which Kono excels, can trump politics.
“Lawmakers will certainly choose whoever they think is best for re-election,” Hino added.
“They think of election posters, their faces on them with the head of the Liberal Democratic Party. This is especially true in urban areas, and with young people.”
Connection with Kono thrived on social media, gaining 2.4 million followers on Twitter.
The bizarre posts that popped up early this year, featuring memes, his lunch or a mask with a dinosaur skull, have turned to promoting a vaccine and highlighting online policy meetings.
Kono became forged a real rapport with those who normally don’t care about politicians when the debate erupted online after he blocked some of those who disagreed with him on Twitter.
But analysts say the incident also highlights one of his biggest weaknesses.
“He wants you to love him, he wants to love you, he wants to engage, but he has a little bit of a streak of anger and that can be a burden,” Wallace said.
In 2019, when Foreign Minister Kono scolded the South Korean ambassador during a meeting in front of the cameras, telling him he was “very rude”.
These memories are sparking panic in South Korea, already nervous about the conservative stance Kono took on key policies when he was a government minister.
This is in contrast to his father, Yohei Kono, a Chief Cabinet Secretary who wrote a landmark apology in 1993 to “comfort women,” a euphemism for those forced to work in brothels in wartime Japan.
South Korean media has hardened his tough stance, and some commentators fear that already strained relations may not improve.
But inside, there is hope that Kono, whose privileged nature is remembered by Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, can get things done.
Analysts say most of the blame for Japan’s handling of the pandemic has fallen on Suga, sinking his government, while Kono has built an image of working hard in rolling out a vaccine.
Japan’s emergency measures didn’t do much until recently to curb virus infections that swept its hospitals, but after a slow start, vaccination rates have soared to just over half, close to the United States and other G7 nations.
“He overcame all the obstacles and bureaucratic excuses made especially by the Ministry of Health,” said Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute of Population Health at King’s College London, who administers municipal vaccinations in Fukushima Prefecture, north of Tokyo. Capital.
“I think he is the only candidate who can challenge the status quo.”
But Kono must win first, which means he’ll have to overcome the deep-rooted fears of the party’s elders that he might be hard to control.
“This does not mean that Kono is totally against what the party wants to do,” Wallace added. But he will be his prime minister one way or another.”