TOKYO -- Japanese administrative reform minister Taro Kono will run to become the next leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party following Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's decision Friday not to seek reelection in the Sept. 29 vote.
The LDP race will essentially decide who will serve as the party's face in the lower-house election also slated for sometime this fall. Originally expected to shape up into a one-on-one battle between Suga and former party policy chief Fumio Kishida, the race will now feature many key figures who have expressed interest in joining the contest in light of Suga's announcement.
Kono on Friday told Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso of his plan to run. Aso, who leads the LDP faction to which Kono belongs, is believed to have said: "I don't support or oppose it."
Kono, who is also in charge of Japan's coronavirus vaccine rollout and previously served as defense and foreign minister, was the top choice to succeed Suga in a weekend Nikkei poll, at 16%. He was especially popular among younger voters, commanding a more than 10-point lead over other potential candidates among respondents under 40.
"Responding to the coronavirus is not just about vaccines, but also about tackling necessary reforms," Kono told reporters Friday. "I want to make a decision on what I will do based on thorough consultations with my colleagues."
Kono also dispelled concerns that the race would interfere with his current responsibilities. "I have experienced a lower-house election while serving as foreign minister before. I believe I will be able to tackle the LDP leadership race while continuing my work in the cabinet," he said.
Regarding Suga's decision to step down, Kono said: "I was unable to provide him with enough support as a member of his cabinet."
Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who had not previously commented on whether he would run, said: "We're facing a completely new situation now, and I need to make a choice that reflects the change."
"I want to make a decision at the right time together with my colleagues," Ishiba added. He has previously served as minister for defense as well as for agriculture and for regional vitalization.
"As the ruling party, we had the responsibility of choosing the prime minister," he said. "We need to sincerely reflect on whether we have fulfilled our responsibility to the public, and what it thinks about the current situation."
Ishiba believed the coronavirus, Japan's declining population and national security would be the key issues in the LDP race.
"I strongly feel that the Japanese people are wondering why lawmakers don't seem to understand what they are facing," he said. "We don't hear their voices on a daily basis, but we have a responsibility to answer to them."
Ishiba narrowly trailed Kono in the Nikkei poll and could prove a popular choice among those who disapprove of the Suga cabinet. But his faction only has 17 members, short of the 20 backers required to launch an official campaign, meaning he will need support from other LDP factions as well.
"There's almost a month still left before the vote," Kishida said during an appearance on TV Friday. The former foreign minister announced his run on Aug. 26, before Suga announced his decision.
"Lots of things will happen in the meantime, so we need to stay alert as we head toward the election," Kishida added.
The list of potential candidates could expand even further.
Former Interior Minister Sanae Takaichi told reporters Friday that there was "no change" in her plan to run. Takaichi is popular among those who view constitutional amendments as a top priority for the next LDP president. Because she does not belong to a faction, she is seeking support from her former colleagues in the Hosoda faction as well as unaffiliated lawmakers.
Executive Acting Secretary-General Seiko Noda also plans to join the race.
"There was a lot of criticism, but no other government has worked harder and delivered more results in a year," said Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi with tears in his eyes on Friday.
Koizumi revealed that he had advised Suga not to seek reelection. "If the incumbent runs and becomes worn out, then he may not get proper credit for his accomplishments," said Koizumi, explaining his rationale. When asked, Koizumi did not state whether he would enter the race.
The vote comes as cabinet approval for Suga plumbs record lows, largely due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. LDP lawmakers are eager to repair the party's image under a new leader, especially with the lower-house election taking place by Nov. 28 at the latest.
Still, all LDP factions, save the one led by Kishida, are weighing whom to back, in contrast to the 2020 party election when five of the seven quickly threw their support behind Suga. It is unclear how the crowded field could affect the contest's outcome.