A maverick at home, Japan's Taro Kono set for softer diplomatic approach abroad

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pick for his new foreign minister, Taro 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.

Japan's new Foreign Minister Taro Kono arrives at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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.

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 U.S. 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 in an email.

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 programs, 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 criticized 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.

Reporting by Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Paul Tait