Japan vaccine minister seeks to be next prime minister

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s outspoken vaccinations minister, Taro Kono, announced Friday that he is running to become the head of the governing party, who usually is chosen prime minister, and pledged to be reform-minded and gets things done.

Kono, 58, a Georgetown University graduate who is fluent in English, has many fans among younger people, with whom he communicates via social media, a rarity in Japanese politics. With nearly 2.4 million followers on Twitter, he says he will keep tweeting if elected prime minister.

“I will embrace your views and worries, share information with you, convey a solid message and work with you to overcome this crisis that we face,” Kono said at a packed news conference in Tokyo, referring to the pandemic.

Kono’s declaration comes a week after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s sudden announcement that he will not seek another term as head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party in a Sept. 29 vote. The winner is virtually certain to be elected prime minister by parliament because the party and its coalition partner hold a majority of seats.

Two other lawmakers have already declared their candidacies: centrist former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, who shares former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-wing ideology and revisionist views on wartime history. She is seeking to become Japan’s first female leader.

Kono emphasized his achievements as vaccine minister, portraying himself as someone who gets things done, by tearing down bureaucratic barriers if necessary.

Kono, who is also administrative reform minister, was picked by Suga to lead the country’s vaccination campaign in January before its rollout in mid-February, months behind other countries.

Within weeks, Kono was tasked with the ambitious goal of fully vaccinating all of the nation’s elderly by the end of July, which he achieved by boosting the administration of doses to 1 million per day — another goal set by Suga.

Japan is now on par with the United States in terms of percentage of people who have received at least one shot, and will be in the “top class” among the Group of Seven industrialized nations by the end of September or early October, he said.

Kono has been open about his ambition to become prime minister, a position that members of his family neared but never achieved. His father, Yohei Kono, served as top government spokesman in a coalition government and his grandfather was deputy prime minister.

Kono is a liberal on social issues such as gender equality and diversity but hawkish on national security.

Kono, who has also served as foreign and defense ministers, said he will work with countries that share democratic values and oppose “unilateral” attempts by China to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.

Some governing party lawmakers are cautious about Kono’s past support for a phasing out of nuclear energy. On Friday, he said restarting nuclear reactors would be unavoidable if fossil fuel reductions and increased use of renewable energy are not enough to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Suga, who became prime minister a year ago, has faced nosediving popularity over his government’s handling of the coronavirus, which many saw as slow and limited, and for insisting on hosting the Olympics despite widespread opposition due to health concerns.

Having a fresh leader is important for the Liberal Democrats as they seek to increase their popularity ahead of an upcoming general election that must be held by late November.

Kono was the most popular choice for prime minister in at least three recent public opinion polls, with former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba second and Kishida third. Takaichi, who is less well known, was lower in the rankings. Public popularity does not directly affect the selection of prime minister, who is elected by parliament from candidates presented by various parties.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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