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Japan election

Taro Kono: Straight-talking social media star is actually a blue blood

Japan’s English-speaking problem fixer is front-runner for top job

Taro Kono has held a range of high-profile posts over the years, from foreign minister to minister in charge of Japan's COVID-19 vaccination drive.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's social media-savvy vaccination minister, Taro Kono, believes the time is ripe for him to make a run for the nation's top political job.

The 58-year-old lawmaker on Friday threw his hat into the ring for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election, aiming to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The third LDP member to join the race, Kono is already considered the front-runner. 

Known as a maverick, Kono has a reputation for cracking difficult problems. Suga appointed him minister in charge of administrative reform for this attribute. He has also been overseeing Japan's vaccination campaign since January.

A graduate of Georgetown University, Kono speaks fluent English, a skill that became handy in negotiating vaccine purchases with Pfizer. By talking to American executives late into the night, Kono managed to secure faster shipments to Japan from the pharmaceutical company.

His Japanese-language Twitter account boasts 2.3 million followers. Kono's occasional bantering with ordinary users has helped fuel his popularity. He has also appeared on YouTube to encourage younger audiences to get the vaccine.

Although Kono has not always fit into the mold of the typical Japanese politician, he has an impeccable pedigree as the third generation of a prominent political dynasty.

His father, Yohei, once served as LDP president and lower house speaker, while his grandfather Ichiro rose to deputy prime minister.

While at Georgetown, he volunteered for Democratic California Sen. Alan Cranston's presidential campaign, managing finances, and also interned for Alabama Rep. Richard Shelby, then also a Democrat. 

Kono was first elected to the Diet in 1996 after working at Fuji Xerox and Nippon Tanshi, a supplier of electric components. He embraced the internet as a way to connect with the public well ahead of other lawmakers, launching an email newsletter just two years after first taking office.

His political resume includes stints as foreign minister and defense minister. Kono is a member of the LDP's second-largest faction, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso.

If he is elected party president, he may have to temper his straight-talking style that has occasionally raised eyebrows. As defense minister, Kono ditched plans to deploy an Aegis Ashore land-based missile interception system, but his abrupt announcement caused confusion.

As prime minister, Kono hopes to bring "warmth" to Japanese society. As Japan struggles with a shrinking population, he believes the country should concentrate its dwindling human resources on tasks that cannot be performed by robots and artificial intelligence.

At a press conference announcing his candidacy on Friday, Kono promised a "realistic energy policy that can assure the industry sector," in an apparent attempt to allay concerns that he will move to shut down nuclear reactors once elected.

In an August opinion poll, Kono topped the list of people most suited to become prime minister, with 16% support. Younger LDP lawmakers have high hopes for Kono as a leader who can represent the party in the next general election.

In 2002, Kono helped his father by donating part of his liver. "My father is doing well, so I'm relieved," he told reporters Friday.

Kono is in his eighth term as a lower house member representing Kanagawa Prefecture. He is married with a son and likes to watch J.League soccer in his free time. His favorite food is durian.

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