TOKYO, September 14 (Reuters) – When Taro Kono, Japan’s top candidate for prime minister, was in high school, he asked his father to send him abroad for his university studies, which he was adamant about. refuse.
Instead, the elder Kono, a prominent ruling party politician, took his son to a US Embassy reception in an attempt to prove his English was not good enough.
But the movement turned against him.
“I enthusiastically walked around the room telling people, in my broken English, that I wanted to study abroad, but my dad was against it, so I had a problem,” Kono wrote in a recent book.
Everyone said no, he should wait. But this response, and perhaps the audacity of his son, somehow convinced the father, and Kono ended up spending four years at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Now 58, the popular Japanese Vaccine Minister is fluent in English and hopes to use this early combination of self-confidence, strategy and stubbornness to become leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Prime Minister.
In addition to a resume dotted with high profile portfolios such as foreign affairs and defense, he maintains a two-language Twitter thread and, in a world of staid politicians, speaks bluntly, unlike Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
“Kono is a tight communicator, he talks,” said Corey Wallace, a foreign policy specialist at Kanagawa University.
“He’s still out there giving press conferences about the vaccine rollout and so on,” Wallace added. “Suga seemed to only communicate when he absolutely had to. “
Kono regularly tops opinion polls as a voters’ choice for the next prime minister, which will help both grassroots members in the LDP contest and young lawmakers worried about keeping their jobs. as the general election looms this year.
The image, in which Kono excels, could trump politics, said Airo Hino, professor of political science at Waseda University.
“Lawmakers are definitely going to choose who they think is best for re-election,” Hino added.
“They think of the election posters, and their faces on them with the president of the LDP. This is especially true in urban areas, and with young people. “
SOCIAL MEDIA REACH
Kono’s outreach flourished on social media, where he garnered 2.4 million Twitter followers.
Whimsical articles earlier this year, featuring memes, his lunch, or a mask with a dinosaur skull, turned to promoting the vaccine and highlighting political meetings online.
That Kono forged a genuine connection with those who generally don’t care about politicians became clear when a debate erupted online after blocking some of those who disagreed with him on Twitter.
But the incident also highlights one of its biggest weaknesses, analysts said.
“He wants you to love him, and he wants to love you, and he wants to engage, but he has a little bit of an angry side and that can be a handicap,” Wallace said.
In 2019, when Foreign Minister Kono berated the South Korean ambassador during a meeting in front of cameras, telling him he was “extremely rude.”
These memories spark consternation in South Korea, already nervous about Kono’s conservative stance on key policies when he was minister.
This is in contrast to his father, Yohei Kono, the chief cabinet secretary who drafted a historic apology in 1993 to “comfort women,” a euphemism for those forced to work in Japanese brothels during wartime. .
South Korean media have exaggerated his hardline stance, and some commentators fear the already strained ties may not improve.
But with us, there is hope that Kono, whose non-conformist nature is reminiscent of the very popular 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 landed on Suga, sinking his cabinet, while Kono has built an image of working hard on the vaccine rollout.
Japan’s emergency measures have done little to tackle the viral infections that have flooded its hospitals until recently, but after a slow start, vaccination rates have risen to just over half, getting closer the United States and other G7 countries.
“He (…) overcame all the bureaucratic obstacles and excuses notably put forward by the Department of Health,” said Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, who led municipal vaccinations in the prefecture of Fukushima, north of Tokyo, the capital.
“I think he is the only candidate who can challenge the status quo. “
But Kono must win first, which means he will have to overcome the deep fears of party elders who might be difficult to control.
“That doesn’t mean Kono is completely against what the party wants to do,” Wallace added. “But he will be his own prime minister, one way or another. “
Additional reports from Ju-min Park and Rocky Swift; Editing by Clarence Fernandez
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