Taro Kono, Japan’s Minister for Regulatory Reform and Vaccine, speaks from behind a transparent screen during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan on Tuesday, February 16, 2021.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Taro Kono, the minister responsible for Japan’s vaccine push, is currently leading popular polls of candidates who could become the country’s next leader.
Kono received 31.9% support from respondents in a nationwide telephone poll over the weekend. according to local news agency Kyodo News. Another poll conducted by the daily Yomiuri Shimbun also found that Kono was voted the most suitable person to take over, Reuters reported.
However, the minister himself does not yet have to officially confirm his intention to seek the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan.
On Friday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga effectively paved the way for a new leader after announcing that he will not run in the upcoming elections. Prior to the announcement, Suga had come under fire for handling the Covid situation in Japan, as several parts of the country are currently in a state of emergency.
According to Jesper Koll, Senior Advisor at WisdomTree, Suga’s resignation sets the stage for a “generation change” within the LDP.
Other well-known potential contenders for the upcoming LDP election include former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Interior Minister Sanae Takaichi. Koll said the current field includes “some very interesting and exciting” candidates, describing Kono as a “loner” while Kishida and Takaichi represent the establishment.
Over the weekend, local media reported that Suga becomes Kono. support to follow him.
While the LDP seems to want to lose some seats in the upcoming general election, the winner of the party leadership race could change things, said Koll. For example, he sees the LDP “very easy” to secure its superiority in parliament if Kono becomes party chairman is chosen.
“Taro Kono has the mass appeal, especially with the younger generation here in Japan,” said Koll. “He is very, very accomplished and actually has some very good ideas on how to move the country forward.”
Tobias Harris of the Center for American Progress said Kono could thrive where Suga – like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – failed: communicating with the public.
Harris noted that the vaccination minister is active on Twitter. While Facebook and Instagram are the leading social media platforms in both the US and around the world, Twitter has a larger user base in Japan than these two competitors, according to eMarketer data.
Unlike Suga and Abe, Kono tweets on two separate accounts in both Japanese and English. His Japanese account has 2.3 million followers, putting Suga’s 466,400 followers in the shade. Even Abe who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister before resigning last year has a smaller following of 2.2 million.
Kono’s considerable lead in polls suggests the Japanese public has responded to him as a “quirky, approachable, and really effective public communicator,” said Harris, a senior fellow for Asia at the firm.
“I think in some ways the public might want this more than a technocrat,” Harris said.