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Taro Kono Wants To Be Japan's Prime Minister And He's Getting A Lot Of Attention

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's election time in Japan. The country's set to pick its next leader. One candidate is getting a lot of attention for speaking out in ways Japanese politicians don't often do. Because Japan has been ruled by the same party for the past seven decades, Taro Kono has to win his way into the system before he can change it. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The front-runner in the polls is Taro Kono, a lawmaker and cabinet minister in charge of Japan's vaccine rollout. He previously served as foreign minister and defense minister. Tokyo-based journalist Hiroshi Izumi explains that Kono was born into a well-known family of Japanese politicians.

HIROSHI IZUMI: (Through interpreter) Both his grandfather and his father missed being prime minister by one step. Becoming prime minister is a wish cherished by three generations of the Kono family.

KUHN: Kono is trying to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who quit after a year in office. Many Japanese feel he botched the government's response to COVID and was a wooden, tone-deaf communicator. Kono, by contrast, is Japan's most followed lawmaker on Twitter. His Japanese and English accounts have more than 2.4 million followers.

Ellis Krauss, a Japan expert at the University of California San Diego, points out that Kono graduated from Georgetown University and he worked for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

ELLIS KRAUSS: He would, I think, get along great with the U.S. But domestically, the young generation in Japan is really turned off, and Suga did nothing to stop that trend. And they need something to inspire them even a little.

KUHN: Kono supports same-sex marriage and has said he's open to the possibility of Japan having a female emperor. He's also been highly critical of the country's powerful nuclear energy lobby. I interviewed him shortly after the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TARO KONO: We've been depending on the nuclear energy so much. It's not the policy choice. It's because of those bureaucrats and the power company and the politician got some vested interest in promoting nuclear.

KUHN: Kono now says that nuclear plants shut down after the meltdown can be restarted so that Japan can go carbon neutral by 2050. Ellis Krauss says that as Kono has risen in the political system, he's had to soften his stance on some issues.

KRAUSS: He really is a maverick, and he has been one his whole career. But he's a maverick who's willing to compromise.

KUHN: But this is not a simple popularity contest. In Japan, the ruling party picks the prime minister, so to win, Kono first has to be elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, which in turn requires the backing of powerful faction bosses and interest groups. Hiroshi Izumi explains.

IZUMI: (Through interpreter) More than 40% of LDP members join the party as members of industry associations. They represent interest groups. And the scariest thing for them is Mr. Kono doing whatever he wants.

KUHN: That's the reformers' dilemma. They need the backing of the same party insiders who feel threatened by them. Then again, Ellis Krauss says, the party bosses need a popular leader who can win elections and keep them in power.

KRAUSS: The party will not give mavericks positions of power unless, frankly, they're scared witless. And that is there is an election coming up for the House of Representatives, and they're going to lose.

KUHN: And if Kono wins and then tries to break up vested interests, Hiroshi Izumi says, party members could rebel against him, in which case Kono could find himself the latest in a series of revolving-door leaders who, like his predecessor, were forced to quit after one term.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETE ROBBINS' "INTRAVENOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.