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Japan election

Taro Kono joins LDP leadership race with softened agenda

The administrative reform minister eases stance on nuclear power

Taro Kono, Japan's administrative reform minister, says that "conservatism is something which is generous, moderate and warm." (Photo by Uichiro Kasai) 

TOKYO -- Taro Kono, Japan's administrative reform minister, on Friday announced his bid to lead the Liberal Democratic Party but concealed views perceived to be radical for the country's conservative ruling party.

Emphasizing that he has belonged to the LDP for his entire political career, Kono told reporters that "conservatism is something which is generous, moderate and warm."

In announcing that he is joining the leadership race, Kono also said Japanese culture is built on the imperial family and the Japanese language. "I think conservatism means always adding something new" to such traditions.

Needing to win support from his fellow LDP members, Kono appears to have softened some stances -- such as his position against nuclear power plants -- that go against the conservative party's long-held policies.

This week Kono told reporters that "resuming operations of nuclear power plants, [given that they] were confirmed to be safe, would be necessary as we aim for carbon neutrality. Nuclear power would be gone someday, but I would not tell them to stop tomorrow or next year."

After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture in 2011, the country raised hurdles for nuclear power plants, making it difficult for reactors to start or resume operations.

Kono on Friday said renewables and energy-saving installments will be the primary means to bring carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050. Restarting existing nuclear plants would also be a "realistic" way to achieve the 2050 goal, Kono said. He added that building new reactors is "not realistic for now."

Kono also touched on Japan's gross domestic product gap -- the difference between the actual GDP and the potential GDP of an economy -- of 22 trillion yen ($200 billion). "We need to make investments to move forward to the future," he said, "not to go back to the time before COVID."

He said that the government should fund research into batteries, smart grids and other technologies that can contribute to carbon neutrality, adding that 5G infrastructure can support telecommuting across the country.

Kono emphasized his work as reform minister and vaccine czar, having pushed for digitization and managed the country's vaccine rollout. He said Japan has caught up with the U.S. in terms of vaccination rate. "I'm better than anyone else at execution," he said. "And I can say I am good at coordinating [with others]."

While the COVID-19 response has harmed current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's popularity, Kono suggested that the government needs to communicate COVID-19 related data to the public and "have discussions based on scientific evidence."

Kono's view regarding matrilineal emperors also differs from that of conservative candidates. While Japan's emperors have always been male, there are discussions about who might succeed the current emperor, who only has a daughter.

Fumio Kishida, another candidate in the LDP leadership race, has come out against female heirs. Kono said in 2020 that he prefers patrilineal heirs but a daughter succeeding an emperor could be a possibility when there is no son.

On Wednesday, Kono said he supports the ongoing discussions by the government's expert panel, which has suggested allowing female royals to stay in the imperial household even after marrying.

The panel has not come to an agreement regarding female emperors. "I have no objection to valuing the outcome of the discussion," Kono said.

Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs minister and a hard-line nationalist, has also announced she is joining the LDP's presidential election.

The LDP presidential election campaign is to officially launch on Sept. 17, with vote counting on Sept. 29.

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