Japanese Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō: Focus on the Middle East


Helping His Father in the Most Personal Way

The first thing that springs to mind when I think of politician Kōno Tarō is his acting as a liver donor for his father Kōno Yōhei, a former speaker of the House of Representatives in the Japanese Diet and former president of the Liberal Democratic Party. As Tarō recalls on his blog, in early 2002, Yōhei, suffering from worsening liver cirrhosis, had been given a scant six months to live when Tarō decided that he would donate part of his liver to his father.

Yōhei recollects the episode as follows: “Tarō came to me, saying that it was only natural for him, as the eldest son, to want to ensure that I could live as long as possible. Tarō said that he had read the literature on live-donor liver donation and that it was not as risky a procedure as I imagined it might be” (from Gan sapōto [Cancer Support], a cancer information website, November 2004).

Yōhei refused to even entertain the idea of a transplant, but Tarō finally persuaded him by saying, “I’m telling you I’m giving you part of my liver, and you’ll take it and thank me for it! If it means you’ll live longer, why not?” Even so, the act must have taken courage for Tarō, but in personal life as in politics, he’s the kind of person who makes a clear-eyed assessment of the possibilities and then decisively moves forward.

An LDP Outlier

Here’s just one example of how Kōno Tarō marches to his own drummer. In June 2011, three months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that caused widespread destruction in northeastern Japan, Kōno voted in favor of a 70-day extension of the Diet session scheduled to adjourn that month. The Liberal Democratic Party to which he belongs opposed the measure, and his defiance of the party’s position earned him a one-year suspension from its executive posts. Kōno’s stance was that it was unthinkable to shut down the Diet on schedule when the affected regions were still in severe disarray. He knew that in any case, Diet representatives on both sides of the aisles would vote overwhelmingly in favor of extending the session, but he voted against his party’s wishes as a matter of principle, an episode he recounted in a book published in 2012.

At the time, the LDP was in the opposition, but in the face of the widespread devastation caused by the disaster, Kōno must have felt that he could not in good conscience oppose the measure to extend the Diet session based solely on the interests of his party. He is definitely not a politician who simply goes along to get along. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Asō Tarō touched on this trait humorously at a fund-raiser for Kōno in October 2018 when he told the assembled guests that “the one thing that’s stopping Kōno from becoming a top-flight politician is his total lack of ordinary common sense.”

In another book, the 2010 Watakushi ga Jimintō o tatenaosu (I’ll Fix What Ails the Liberal Democratic Party), Kōno exclaims in the cover blurb that “Because I’m the farthest from the party’s line, everyone thinks I’m as far out as the planet Pluto, but I’m convinced that I can change the party.” Asō, in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek way, seemed to be hinting that Kōno would never amount to much in the world of Japanese politics unless he learned to go with the flow—downgrading him just like Pluto, once regarded as the ninth planet in the solar system, had been relegated to the status of dwarf planet.

A Samurai in the Arab World

As a politician, it’s true that Kōno is neither a salty type representing a rural district nor an elite bureaucrat turned legislator. Born into an illustrious political family, Kōno dropped out of prestigious Keiō University and opted to study at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where he would have a front-row seat from which to observe American politics in action.

Georgetown numbers former President Bill Clinton and King Abdullah of Jordan among its alumni. These ties may account for Kōno’s close rapport with Arab states. He has made several trips to Saudi Arabia, including one as part of a House of Representatives delegation in May 2015. In July 2016, he visited the country again in his capacity as head of the National Public Safety Commission, and met with then vice–Crown Prince Muhammad when the latter visited Tokyo two months later.

On August 4, 2017, immediately after becoming foreign minister, Kōno telephoned Crown Prince Muhammad. The next month, as part of a trip to the Middle East as foreign minister, Kōno visited the Crown Prince and his father, King Salman, in Saudi Arabia. He was also a guest at a lunch hosted by Jordan’s King Abdullah, where, according to Kōno’s blog, the two had a frank discussion of the state of affairs in the region.

Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō (right) participates in a press conference after political discussions with members of the Arab League, which consists of 22 Arab world countries and organizations. Photo taken at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, on September 11, 2017. (© Jiji)
Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō (right) participates in a press conference after political discussions with members of the Arab League, which consists of 22 Arab world countries and organizations. Photo taken at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, on September 11, 2017. (© Jiji)

In the Middle East, trusting diplomatic relationships are built on personal relations. This is why, in interviews with foreign newspapers, Kōno has said that he would like to expand his personal network among notables in the region. But the truth is that he likes the Middle East and is well liked there too, where he comes across as having a combination of practicality and samurai spirit rather than being brisk and Americanized. The Arab world has traditionally liked brave, open-spirited figures like Saudi Arabia’s first monarch and founder of the kingdom Ibn Saud, who was known as “the leopard of the desert,” and so it is that Kōno is the type of Japanese that people there like.

Japan In a Unique Position to Contribute to Stability in the Middle East

In December 2017, Kōno also visited Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, his third visit to the Middle East since taking office as foreign minister the previous August. No other foreign minister, including his immediate predecessor Kishida Fumio, has ever made so many trips to the Middle East in such a short time.

Some believe that Kōno’s interest in the Middle East springs from his father Yōhei’s failed attempt to renew an oil contract between Japan’s Arabian Oil Company and Saudi Arabia in 2000, when he was foreign minister, resulting in Japan losing its oil rights in Saudi Arabia. Seeing the difficulties his father faced then appears to have impressed on the younger Kōno the need to build a strong network of contacts in the region.

As an aside, during the 1991 Gulf War, employees of the Arabian Oil Company’s station located on the Saudi-Kuwaiti border had not left. I was at the Saudi front as a newspaper correspondent and I phoned and urged them to evacuate, but the station head would not hear of it, as he insisted that the Japanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia had merely issued an evacuation advisory, not an evacuation order.

I suppose that, with contract renewal talks looming, the station manager had decided to stay in place because he felt the need to demonstrate loyalty to Saudi Arabia. But the station came under attack soon after the war started, and everyone fled to safety. It was a miracle that no one was injured or killed, as otherwise the government would have been raked over the coals and might have become less enthusiastic about international cooperation after the Gulf War. More than the issue of oil rights, this is the essence of the problem facing Japan in the area of international relations.

Kōno is vocal in his belief that Japan is in a unique position where diplomacy in the Middle East is concerned. He says that there are advantages for Japan in that religion is not an issue and that it has never colonized or ruled by mandate in the Middle East, so Japan can contribute to the region’s stability from a neutral stance.

Helping Forge Peace in the Middle East?

Political discourse between Japan and the Arab world took place for the first time in Cairo in September 2017, when four principal topics were discussed. Kōno touched on these topics, “the four Kōno tenets”—supporting people and ideas, investing in human resources, taking a long-term approach, and enhancing political initiatives—when he spoke to the Diet on diplomacy. In his speech, Kōno emphasized that Japan would deepen its political involvement in the Middle East and play a larger role in bringing peace and stability to the region.

At an international conference in Bahrain’s capital of Manama on October 27, 2018, Kōno brought up three areas where he said that Japan could leverage its experience to support change in the Middle East. Building on the four tenets, Kōno pledged to help young people who want to effect change in the region by supporting changes in the educational system and vocational training planning, including supporting youth who want to study in Japan.

Although the areas where Japan promises to help are not new, Kōno’s remarks attracted attention because at the end of his speech he said that the four tenets included an active role for Japan as an honest facilitator of peace talks. This seems to indicate the possibility that Japan may try to break the logjam in Middle East diplomacy that has developed under the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The Real Value of Shrewd Diplomacy

Kōno steadfastly maintains that Japan is not a subordinate to the United States. In a book published in 2012, Kōno says that unlike Japan in the Cold War era, the country needs to adopt a shrewder, more pragmatic brand of diplomacy and must get rid of its “follower” mindset and take a more independent approach in setting the tone for the Asian region’s place in the global community.

But shrewd diplomacy is easier said than done. For example, the Trump administration has tacitly supported Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad, suspected of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but Japan needs to maintain good relations with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. Kōno himself has established a personal relationship with the crown prince, and even if it the prince’s involvement in the murder became increasingly clear, it’s doubtful that Japan would be in a position to strongly criticize Saudi Arabia.

Further, when he visited Jerusalem and the Palestinian National Authority at the end of 2017, Kōno did not side with the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, because he did not call the United States out for this decision, he failed to show leadership as a conciliator. 

Japan’s foreign minister cannot work miracles, but the Trump administration, working with Israel and Saudi Arabia, is trying to shut Iran out and rewrite the playbook for power relationships and peace in the Middle East. If the United States tries to further tighten the noose on Iran, Japan will have a difficult time balancing its interests, given that it has had a positive relationship with Iran over the years.

Conversely, since the Democratic Party won back a majority in Congress in the US midterm elections, President Trump may lose influence as moves toward impeachment grow stronger. That could mean a further loss of American presence in the Middle East, more haphazard diplomatic overtures, and more tension or even a major outbreak of hostilities. The Middle East is moving toward turmoil rather than stability: the true value of Kōno’s diplomacy is sure to be tested many times in the future.

(Originally published in Japanese on December 17, 2018. Banner photo: Foreign minister Kōno Tarō in talks with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, December 25, 2017. © Jiji.)

diplomacy Middle East policy