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Abe picks maverick as foreign minister in move to refresh Cabinet image

Foreign Minister Taro Kono holds a news conference at the prime minister's office after the launch of the new Abe Cabinet on Aug. 3, 2017. (Mainichi)

Seeking to shift public sentiment after a string of scandals involving both himself and former Cabinet members triggered an approval numbers nosedive, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe named ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) "maverick" Taro Kono as foreign minister during an Aug. 3 Cabinet shuffle.

The appointment of a new foreign minister became a key issue in the Cabinet reshuffle as soon as it became certain that former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, now the LDP's policy chief, would be replaced. While the names of former state minister Katsunobu Kato and former economy minister Toshimitsu Motegi -- both of whom are in the new Abe Cabinet -- had come up as post-Kishida candidates, the prime minister picked administrative reform specialist Kono.

Kono told reporters following the Cabinet's inauguration, "This is my first time working in the Foreign Ministry. I'm succeeding Mr. Kishida, and am determined to do my best."

Kono having no experience at the Foreign Ministry does not mean he has no experience in diplomacy. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington and has built his own network in the United States. Prime Minister Abe expressed high hopes for Kono on Aug. 3, saying, "He has been to the United States many times and made friends there. He has also had exchanges with American politicians. I'm sure he'll serve (as minister) with an understanding of how to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance."

Furthermore, Kono's father Yohei is one of the best known doves within the LDP, and has served in key posts from foreign minister and party president to House of Representatives speaker. Some Foreign Ministry officials say the appointment of Kono will be viewed favorably by China and South Korea.

At the same time, Kono's policies do not necessarily overlap with those of his father. When he was chief Cabinet secretary under then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, Yohei Kono released the so-called 1993 "Kono Statement" about the Japanese military's involvement in the operation of and recruitment for the wartime "comfort women" system. When asked about the statement on Aug. 3, the younger Kono avoided commenting on it, but instead said, "Our country's position can be summed up in the 2015 statement by the Abe Cabinet on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Japan-South Korea bilateral accord (on comfort women issues agreed at the end of 2015)," suggesting that Seoul make sure that it implements its end of the agreement.

Kono is known to be outspoken. During his party's time as the opposition, he was vocal in his criticism of veteran LDP members. When he was serving as minister in charge of administrative reform in the previous Abe Cabinet, however, Kono showed his flexible side, distancing himself from his long-held opinion that nuclear power should be phased out. Based on such adaptability, Prime Minister Abe apparently thought that appointing Kono as foreign minister would not be a problem.

Nevertheless, Kono's tendency to broadcast his opinions could be a double-edged sword for the Abe administration. For example, it was Kono's demand that the Defense Ministry search for daily reports from Japan's peacekeeping forces in South Sudan -- reports that the ministry had decided not to release and said had been scrapped -- that set the stage for the ministry to eventually admit their existence.

He has also slammed the Foreign Ministry on his blog over its operation of Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA) program. After learning that he was going to be appointed foreign minister, Kono reportedly told those close to him, "I never thought I'd be handling what I've been criticizing."

With regard to ODA programs, Kono told reporters on Aug. 3 that he would discuss them in the ministry. "It's important to gain taxpayers' understanding," he added. A senior Foreign Ministry official expressed concerns, telling the Mainichi Shimbun, "He might grill us on matters regarding budgets, including cutting wasteful spending."

Kono's appointment as foreign minister has also sent ripples through the LDP. The post is a key one in the administration, so his faction could come to see Kono as a candidate to be the next party president. The faction, headed by Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso, has not named a successor to fill the shoes of the 76-year-old veteran lawmaker. There is currently no prospect of merging three Kochikai-affiliated factions -- headed by Aso, Kishida and former Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki -- in sight, which also lends credence to the theory that Kono is next in line to head the Aso faction.

When information got out late on the night of Aug. 2 that Kono was to be named the new foreign minister, a former Cabinet member appeared dumbstruck, saying, "That's really something."

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