Japan's outspoken cabinet minister in charge of COVID-19 vaccinations, Taro Kono, has the most popular support to become the country's next leader, according to opinion polls, as potential candidates jockey to replace outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Suga, who took office a year ago, faced nosediving popularity over his government's coronavirus response, which many saw as slow and limited, and for insisting on hosting the Olympics despite widespread opposition over health concerns.
Last Friday, Suga announced that he would not seek re-election in this month’s leadership race for the ruling Liberal Democratic party. The winner of that contest will lead the party in a general election that must be held by 30 November.
As Japan braces for a period of uncertainty and turmoil after experiencing a long period of stability under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, here's a look at who Kono is and what are the challenges awaiting him.
Who is he?
At 58, Taro Kono, a graduate of Georgetown University and fluent in English is a rarity in Japanese politics, which is dominated by elderly men.
Kono is a seasoned politician with a lot of experience. In August of 2017, then prime minister Shinzo Abe named Kono as the foreign minister, replacing Fumio Kishida, who had served in that role since 2012 and had rarely publicly disagreed with Abe.
He also served as defense minister in the Abe government from 2019 to 2020.
Kono enjoys mass popularity among the voters in Japan.
In an opinion poll in the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, he received 23 percent votes to be the top leader. A telephone survey conducted on 4-5 September showed nearly 32 percent of the 1,071 respondents said they preferred Kono as the next prime minister.
Kono is also in charge of the vaccine rollout in the country. In August, he had said that he aims to see the full nation to be vaccinated by October or November and in fact, has also arranged for Pfizer and Moderna booster shots for next year.
COVID challenge ahead
However, it’s not going to be smooth sailing for Kono if he takes up the responsibility.
The country is still facing a crisis in the face of coronavirus disease.
As of 4 September, Japan had announced plans to extend a state of emergency in and around Tokyo until the last week of September in a further bid to contain the coronavirus epidemic.
Japan has been under restrictions owing to the number of severe cases and the strain on the medical system, especially in Tokyo and surrounding areas.
Japan is battling its fifth and biggest wave of COVID-19 cases, driven by the highly infectious Delta variant.
The capital, which hosted the Olympics from late July and just finished staging the Paralympics, saw over 125,600 new coronavirus cases in August, almost triple the previous monthly record infections logged in July.
Amid the virus, questions have been raised about the slow rollout of the vaccination programme in the country.
Even though Japan has administered more than 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, it also has the lowest rate among the Group of Seven advanced nations of its population overall being fully vaccinated at 32.9 percent. That compares with 50.8 percent in the United States and 59 percent in the United Kingdom, according to Johns Hopkins University’s vaccine tracker.
A poll carried out by public broadcaster NHK from 7-9 August found 75 percent of respondents thought Japan’s vaccine rollout was "slow,” while only 18 percent said it was "smooth.”
In many places, local governments are at odds with the federal government over vaccine shortage.
According to a report in NHK, companies and local governments throughout the country have had to trim their vaccination programmes due to the shortage. Osaka City was recently forced to suspend inoculations in many of the city’s planned sites, frustrating thousands of people who were trying to make appointments.
The government apologised amid a growing public backlash. "I’m sorry that our inability to provide timely updates on our remaining supply has caused confusion," Taro Kono, the minister, was quoted as saying.
The recent Moderna vaccine contamination is yet another challenge for Kono.
Two regions in the country put on hold their vaccine programme following the discovery of foreign substances in more batches. This followed the nationwide suspension of 1.63 million doses earlier in the month of August.
Additionally, the country also faces an issue of vaccine reluctance. Less than 25 percent strongly agree vaccines are effective, important and safe, according to a survey by The Lancet.
A recent poll by Japanese public broadcaster NHK found 36 percent said they didn’t want to take a Covid-19 vaccine -- a challenge that the new prime minister will have to face.
Speaking of the hesitation, Haruka Sakamoto, a public health researcher at the University of Tokyo stated: "Japan is very cautious about vaccines, because historically there have been issues about potential side effects. The government has been involved in several lawsuits related to the issue, which adds to their deep caution.”
Taro Kono has long been viewed as a lone wolf in Japanese politics. His aloofness has always been an issue that has left many not taking him seriously.
Colleagues are also wary of Kono’s short temper and independent approach to policy, which have earned him the widely used nickname “weirdo”, an epithet he has publicly acknowledged.
However, he does enjoy Suga’s support, which could go a long way and see his political dreams of becoming prime minister coming true.
With inputs from agencies