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FM Kono, once seen as dissident, going mainstream as he eyes bid to become PM

Foreign Minister Taro Kono speaks about diplomatic policy during a New Year meeting for his supporters in his home constituency in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Jan. 8, 2018. (Mainichi)

Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who spent much of his time since assuming the post in August last year on overseas trips, was in his hometown of Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Jan. 8, 2018, shortly after the New Year's holiday period.

"Politicians senior to us extended assistance to other countries in a very courteous manner. That has now become an important asset for Japan's diplomacy," 55-year-old Kono told a New Year meeting for his supporters held at a community hall inside the municipal government headquarters on that day. He thus emphasized that he is determined to strengthen Japan's traditional diplomatic policy.

Kono had previously demanded that the Foreign Ministry halve Japan's official assistance to developing countries and criticized the ministry as a harmful bureau. His remarks at the New Year meeting highlighted a 180-degree turn in his stance.

Supporters at the event praised Kono's achievements.

"Of all the Cabinet members, Minister Kono is doing the best job," one of them said.

"He's now prepared to take the helm of the government," another stated.

However, the foreign minister made no mention of the September 2018 presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Supporters had expected some bold statements from Kono, who had suggested he was aspiring to become prime minister.

Kono had called for the elimination of nuclear power in defiance of the LDP's basic policy and insisted that the public pension system be reformed by using revenue from the consumption tax as a financial resource. The foreign minister has even been described as a "dissident." In particular, he had worked earnestly on administrative reform since he was a junior legislator.

Before the Cabinet reshuffle last year, Kono, who then served as chairman of the LDP's Administrative Reform Promotion Headquarters, summoned officials of various ministries and agencies and pressed them, in a raised voice, to slash costs as he was pursuing the "elimination of waste."

At the time, Kono told Masaaki Taira, second-in-command at the headquarters, "I'd like to play a role of offering 'katsudon' (port cutlet on a bowl of rice)." Kono compared his role to a police investigator in an old detective drama who offered katsudon to a crime suspect during questioning to get a confession. Kono was apparently exploring the appropriate timing to transform himself from a dissident legislator feared by bureaucrats into a political leader skillful in fully utilizing the expertise of bureaucrats.

What changed Kono, as his supporters in his home constituency point out, is his failure to run in the 2012 LDP presidential election.

Kono had run in the LDP leadership election for the first time in 2009. In the race, former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki was elected to lead the LDP, which had just suffered a crushing defeat in that year's House of Representatives election and had been driven out of power. Even though he was beaten, Kono performed outstandingly in the leadership election by garnering a large number of local votes cast by rank-and-file party members as well as local assembly members belonging to the party.

Kono aspired to run in the 2012 party leadership race when LDP members were highly optimistic about returning to power as the then Democratic Party of Japan-led administration was meandering and had lost public support.

However, he struggled to gain recommendations from at least 20 fellow LDP legislators, a prerequisite for running for the LDP presidency, as many legislators who had supported Kono in the previous election backed Shinzo Abe. In the end, Abe was elected LDP leader and subsequently became prime minister. At the time, Yoshihide Suga, who now serves as chief Cabinet secretary in the Abe Cabinet, dissuaded Kono from running by telling him, "You should come after Abe."

Kono belongs to a 59-member intraparty faction led by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, who took over the group from the foreign minister's father, Yohei Kono. In spite of this, Kono has criticized elders wielding influence on the LDP and the dominance of second- and third-generation politicians within the party.

Kono has pursued both realism and idealism. However, he is sticking to realism for now and is working hard to support Aso faction members' election campaigns. He is aiming to carry out the elimination of atomic power and pension system reform in a top-down fashion if he takes over the reins of government. If that happens, he reportedly intends to change the title of his blog from the current "Powerless rage" to "Voice of authority."

If Kono had remained a lone wolf who disregards intraparty factions, he would not have been appointed to such important posts in the Abe Cabinet as minister in charge of administrative reform and then foreign minister.

Kono has now come to be seen as a hopeful candidate to replace Abe, partly because Suga has suggested he will support Kono's bid to succeed Abe as LDP president. However, this is premised on Abe's election to a third term as LDP president in the upcoming party leadership race.

Aides to Kono are worried that the foreign minister, who also refrained from running in the 2015 leadership race, cannot wait until Abe completes his third term as party leader.

"You could be a real candidate in the party presidential election (three years later). Please cautiously respond to that," one of them said.

"I had also run in the past election as a real candidate," Kono replied. However, he is fully aware of the situation surrounding him now.

With a view to running in the LDP presidential election in three years' time, Kono keenly feels a rivalry with Shinjiro Koizumi, a fellow LDP lower house member who was also elected in Kanagawa Prefecture. Even though Koizumi is still in his 30s, he could overtake Kono if a generational change within the party swiftly progresses.

Kono showed his real intentions when he delivered an election campaign speech for Hideki Murai, who was running in last year's lower house election from the Saitama No. 1 constituency.

"The time will come when Shinjiro Koizumi and Hideki Murai will fight in a party presidential election. But before then, please give me a chance," Kono said.

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