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Taro Kono as Foreign Minister: Is He Abe’s Trump Card to Have the ‘Kono Statement’ on Comfort Women Revised?




On August 3rd Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reorganized his Cabinet. After the investiture ceremony at the Imperial Palace, he launched his third restructured Cabinet. That same evening he held a press conference at the official residence of the prime minister.



With respect to his previously stated intent to bring about revision of the Constitution by 2020 he stated, “I do not have a timetable.” In effect he indicated that he was setting aside his previously indicated policy of presenting the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposals for revision of the Constitution during the special fall session of the Diet.  


His restructuring of the Cabinet means he will be given top priority to economic policies. In the midst of a sharp fall in public support for his Cabinet, Prime Minister Abe is putting all his energy into a restructuring with members who promise stability.


The most difficult point in this restructuring of the Cabinet was the issue of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. What was the problem? Fumito Ishibashi chief of the political news department at the Sankei Shimbun and Rui Abiru editorial editor and politics editor give their analysis.



The new Foreign Minister, Taro Kono was seen after the photo session


On the night of the 2nd the day before the Cabinet restructuring those close to Shinzo Abe were asking, “Is it really OK to have Taro Kono as Foreign Minister?”


The Prime Minister, however, didn’t listen. “It’s OK,” he reportedly said. “He’s different from his father Yohei Kono (former House of Representatives chairman). There’s no reason to be concerned.”


It is nonetheless clear that Abe had been seriously struggling to make a decision.  He did not make the informal request that Kono enter the Cabinet until the afternoon of August 2nd, and it was after 11 pm when his appointment was finalized.




The post of foreign minister created the most difficulty in this Cabinet restructuring.  Since the inauguration of the his 2nd  government in December of 2012, Abe has stressed “consistency in diplomacy,” and has relied heavily on Fumio Kishida as foreign minister. Kishida has been saying, however, that “it’s about time for me to return to handling internal party matters.”  




Abe considered bringing in LDP Policy Research Council chairman Toshimitsu Motegi, but given the necessity of “highest priority on economic policy,” Motegi was the only right person for Minister of Economic Revitalization.


With Motegi out of contention, that left only two candidates for foreign minister: Taro Kono and Abe confidante Katsunobu Kato.


As a former official in the Ministry of Finance, as well as his service as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Kato offered stability but not freshness. Moreover, his father Yohei, both as foreign minister and president of the Liberal Democratic Party, had been in direct opposition to Abe on historical issues and foreign policy in East Asia.  


In contrast, Kono is fluent in English and has a well-developed sense of international issues, but because of repeated sharp remarks on social security and budgetary waste, he had been considered by some as a political eccentric.



So, why did Abe think of entrusting Yohei’s son with the foreign relations portfolio?




Yohei was the leader of the dovish faction of the LDP and of politicians who were favorably disposed to China and the preservation of the existing Constitution. He was guilty of a policy failure that can be described as a stain on the diplomatic history of Japan. In August of 1993 while he was Cabinet Secretary, Yohei issued what came to be called the “Kono Statement” (Kono Danwa).

(Editor’s note:  Here is the negotiations behind the Statement.)


The Statement spread the mistaken belief, both within and outside Japan, that “the government of Japan has publicly admitted that the comfort women were taken by force.” This created the image of the comfort women that prevails throughout the world today.


The phrase “taken by force” in fact appears nowhere in the Kono Statement. Still, this was how the misconception that former Imperial Army engaged in taking women by force became “fact”: on the occasion of the public announcement of the Statement, Yohei answered a question “Do you acknowledge that there was in fact the taking of women by force?” Yohei on his own arbitrary judgment replied, “Yes, it’s OK to say that is the fact.”



More than 20 years have passed since the Kono Statement was issued. In June of 2014 the government assembled a report covering the background to the creation of the Kono Statement.  The conclusion was that “the so-called taking by force cannot be verified,” but Yohei continues to defend the validity of the Statement.


And it is not just this.  He has piled criticism on the foreign and security policy of Abe.  During the 1st Abe government, when Abe used the phrase “leaving the post-war regime behind” as part of his August 15th 2007 statement for National Memorial Service for the War Dead, Yohei responded with the following comment: “The [people of Japan] chose a new regime symbolized by the Constitution of Japan and its prohibition on the use of military force overseas. That is the path they have taken down to this day.”




Nonetheless, Abe looked to Taro Kono one term junior to him in the Diet.  Abe put him in his Cabinet as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission in October 2015 when he made the first reshuffle of his third-term cabinet.


There was a reason for this.



Sometime in 2000, the first-term Diet member Kono made a brief visit to the office of second-term Diet member Abe.


He said to Abe: “I’m in full agreement with your ideas on collective self-defense. If you decide to have a go at becoming prime minister, I’ll be backing you.”


Kono spoke with passion and bowed.


At that time Abe was repeatedly calling in the Diet and elsewhere for a change in the interpretation of the Constitution that would recognize a limited degree of collective action for self defense. But he experienced “blowback” and only a few Diet members sided with him.


The words of Kono had an impact on Abe and made him wonder, “Maybe he’s completely different from his father in the way he thinks.”



After that Abe paid careful attention to the words and actions of Taro Kono. Not once has Taro indicated agreement with his father Yohei on the comfort women issue.  If anything, it appears that he wanted to put some distance between himself and the Kono Statement.


In his blog in November of 2012, he took up the Kono Statement. He did not explicitly state his own thoughts but instead dispassionately recorded the government view and the objective record of the background to the Statement.


In August of 2013 someone confused Taro with Yohei and made a post to his Twitter account that said, “So you are the SOB who spread the lies about the comfort women!”  


Kono responded in kind: “You’re saying I did what?”





Nonetheless, there is a big risk in making Kono foreign minister. How will Abe hedge his bet?


One way is with the overall Cabinet line up. Taro Aso, a close friend of Abe who is both Deputy Prime Minister and minister of finance, will keep an eye on Kono and give him guidance. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stands for election from Kanagawa Prefecture as does Taro Kono and has acted as elder brother and mentor to him. If Kono starts to run wild, Abe can have these two intervene and restrain him.


Even with this, the “Kono risk” is not entirely eliminated. First, he might say something stupid about the bureaucracy.


On March 2nd at a meeting of the LDP Legal Affairs Committee, he lashed out at Foreign Ministry officials, saying, “Was the Foreign Ministry lying? Were you clueless? Did you lack motivation? Which was the case? Make yourselves clear!” This is not the language to motivate people.


The “shift away from nuclear power” is also grounds for concern. Japan is the only country without nuclear weapons with a recognized right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. This is based on the 1988 Japan-United States Nuclear Power Cooperation Agreement that comes to full term in 2018. Will Kono work for a quick renewal?



He has also said about Overseas Development Assistance, “It needs to be reduced by half and the content substantially changed.” But, if this comes to pass there would be major discontent within the government.




 Kono is soon to make his foreign affairs debut. As of posting, he is in Manila to attend the  attend the Association of South East Asian Nations foreign ministerial conference in Manila until August 8th.  Meetings with the United States, Chinese, and Korean foreign ministers are also scheduled.  One misstatement by “the son of Yohei Kano” cannot but send a wrong message.


His grandfather Ichiro Kono, a former minister of agriculture, was heavily involved in the negotiations leading to the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration in 1956. Whether this went well or not is a matter of interpretation.


Presumably Abe knows the risks.  At his press conference on the evening of August 3rd, the Prime Minister said, “With respect to recognition of historical issues, the Cabinet affirmed a statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Taro Kono was in complete agreement with that statement.”



Kano himself said, “With respect to the comfort women issue, I support the statement made on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and the agreement between Japan and Korea on this issue.”


Perhaps Abe is thinking that he wants to have the son of the author of the Kono Statement reconsider and revise it.



(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)




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