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Politics

Maverick Foreign Minister Kono unnerves the bureaucrats

Japan's new chief diplomat uses English 'to take back control'

Japan's new Foreign Minister Taro Kono has strayed from protocol by speaking in English during official meetings with foreign dignitaries.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Shortly after his surprise appointment as Japanese foreign minister, Taro Kono issued an unusual instruction to his civil servants.

In future, Kono declared, he wanted potential questions he might face and the appropriate answers to be drawn up in English. The order unnerved bureaucrats because the foreign minister is traditionally accompanied to any meeting by an interpreter.

Although the new policy does not square with Kono's initial promise to keep a low profile ("it is more important that I do what I have to do than it is to bring out my own color"), it does fit his direct diplomatic style.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-related Foreign Ministers' meeting in Manila on August 7, Kono gave a 10-minute talk to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Because speaking through an interpreter usually halves the amount said during official meetings, the conversation with Tillerson lasted the better part of 20 minutes, a Japanese source said.

Over dinner, Kono went one step further, even using his English to briefly engage with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in an unofficial chat.

Kono, center, has built up an extensive network of contacts overseas.

When Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, reshuffled his Cabinet in August, Kono was the biggest, and perhaps only, surprise appointment. Viewed as significantly more dovish than Abe, Kono had also clashed repeatedly with the foreign ministry.

An alumnus of Georgetown University, Kono speaks fluent English, most famously in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan.

Kono, then a member of the opposition, had a heated exchange with a CNN anchor where he defended the Japanese government's handling of the accident to a U.S. audience, where Tokyo's crisis management had been seriously questioned.

Kono said there was no risk of an immediate explosion at the No. 4 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and denied that the government was covering up -- just slow in releasing information.

Few Japanese, whether politicians or otherwise, can match Kono's English. Tomohito Shinoda, professor of international relations at the International University of Japan and and old friend, says even fewer could accurately convey such a complex matter so concisely in a second language.

Kono learnt his English after quitting Tokyo's prestigious Keio University to study international relations in Washington's Georgetown university. He completed an internship at the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He later worked for Fuji Xerox in Singapore while and visits the U.S. every year.

What it really takes

Kono left Tokyo's prestigious Keio University to study international relations at Georgetown.

Back at the foreign ministry, officials do not see Kono's English language skills as a plus.

One senior ministry official explained that, rather than being an asset at this level, language skills can "be harmful at times."

Speaking in one's native language is the norm when foreign ministers meet and specially trained interpreters are provided. Former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, for example, was adamant about speaking through an interpreter during his time in the role, despite being a proficient English speaker.

But it may not be just Kono's insistence on using English that rankles officials at the foreign ministry. Kono began establishing an extensive network of contacts overseas well before he became a lawmaker and has repeatedly stated that diplomacy was the reason he entered politics.

Matthew Pottinger, the U.S. National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs and a key point-man on China, for example, is one of a number of senior officials Kono got to know through the U.S.-Japan Leadership Program several years ago.

The program, hosted by the United States-Japan Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, was launched with the aim of developing communication, friendship and understanding among next-generation leaders in the two countries.

On his first official visit to the US last August, Kono attended a "two plus two" meeting of foreign and defense ministers but took time out in the interval to attend a a gathering of government officials, lawyers and media, most of whom were alumni of the program.

Drawing bureaucrats in

An opposition lawmaker commented that imparting information without going through official diplomatic channels could "cause unexpected trouble."

In reality, Kono has had little in the way of direct contact with foreign dignitaries since taking office, but officials at the ministry remain suspicious.

The new foreign minister has had a long-standing feud with the ministry over the management of Japan's official development assistance program, which has seen him repeatedly criticize a lack of maintenance at dams and other facilities constructed through the fund.

The bureaucrats' sense of having been constantly under attack from Kono may have fostered unwarranted worries about his use of English and his personal network.

Kono has been known to be extremely flexibile, for instance by keeping his anti-nuclear stance low-key while minister for administrative reform.

Still, the new foreign minister may harbour ambitions to run for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the future. If he does, his ability to win over bureaucrats will be critical -- but that should not force him to abandon his innate style to "let Kono be Kono".

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