Shinzo Abe

Japan’s new top diplomat Taro Kono is son of official who wrote landmark 1993 apology to ‘comfort women’

New foreign minister’s father wrote the ‘Kono Statement’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 1:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 11:20pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday named new defence and foreign ministers as part of a cabinet revamp he hopes will stem a decline in public support after a series of scandals and missteps.

Itsunori Onodera, a former defence chief, is to return to the defence ministry - rocked by the resignation last week of close Abe political ally Tomomi Inada.

Taro Kono, the son of a dovish foreign minister well-known in China for issuing a landmark apology on war sex slaves, will become the country’s new top diplomat.

Political blueblood Abe, in office since late December 2012, has pushed a nationalist agenda alongside a massive policy effort to end years of on-off deflation and rejuvenate the world’s third-largest economy.

But he has seen public support rates plummet in the past few months over an array of political troubles, including allegations of favouritism to a friend in a business deal - which Abe strongly denies.

“I deeply regret that my shortcomings have invited this situation,” a chastened Abe said earlier in the day ahead of the formal announcement of the cabinet changes.

The new cabinet was announced by Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman.

Abe’s pick for his new foreign minister, Kono, is known for his close ties with Washington and his reputation as a political maverick who does not shy away from speaking his mind, even on politically sensitive issues.

Kono, 54, is the son of former chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, who wrote a landmark 1993 apology to “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels. It was known as the “Kono Statement”.

Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia including China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the second world war.

A fluent English speaker educated at Georgetown University in Washington, Kono will replace Fumio Kishida, who has rarely differed in public with Abe since taking office in December 2012, after a Cabinet reshuffle on Thursday.

“(His) extremely strong and deep connections in the US range from personal relationship with senators and congressmen and State Department officials all the way to A-team venture capitalists and entrepreneurs,” said Jesper Koll, head of equity fund WisdomTree Japan.

“In the current state of confusion and flip-flop in Washington, Kono’s deep and broad network of personal connection will be a huge asset,” he said.

One of his major tasks will be to coordinate closely with the United States, Japan’s closest ally, in the face of North Korea’s worrying missile and nuclear development programmes, as well as China’s growing regional clout.

Kono was head of the National Public Safety Commission, a Cabinet-level post, for 10 months to August 2016, and was responsible for security for the G7 summit in Ise-Shima while doubling as an administrative reform minister.

First elected to parliament in 1996, Kono has said he wants Japan to commit to phasing out nuclear power by shutting down reactors when they reach 40 years of service, contrasting the government’s policy of maintaining its nuclear reactors as a core energy source.

He has also criticised the government’s resistance to opening the door to immigrants as a way to address a shortage of workers as Japan’s population ages and shrinks.

Despite his record as a political maverick, analysts said they expected a more modest approach to diplomacy, just like Kishida, with no major changes to Japan’s foreign policy likely.

“I see a good overall balance between Kono, who is a dove, and Prime Minster Abe, who is on the hawkish side. It will be like what it was between Abe and Kishida,” said Tomoaki Iwai, political science professor at Nihon University.

In 2002, Kono donated part of his liver to his father, who was suffering from cirrhosis.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters