UPDATE 1-Japan defence chief Kono backs Suga for prime minister, but keeps eye on top job

By Tim Kelly and Kiyoshi Takenaka. TOKYO, Sept 3- Japan’s Defence Minister Taro Kono on Thursday said he supports Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as the country’s next leader to provide continuity in tackling the coronavirus crisis but also predicted he will one day be prime minister. Abe announced on Friday he was resigning because of poor health,…

By Tim Kelly and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO, Sept 3 (Reuters) – Japan’s Defence Minister Taro Konoon Thursday said he supports Chief Cabinet Secretary YoshihideSuga as the country’s next leader to provide continuity intackling the coronavirus crisis but also predicted he will oneday be prime minister.

Identified early by local media as a potential candidate,Kono had considered entering the leadership race to replaceretiring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but decided against it afterSuga announced his decision to run.

“It is important to contain COVID-19 and at the same time weneed to restart the economy,” Kono said in an interview withReuters. “One day I will be the prime minister,” he added.

Suga on Wednesday announced he would run in the rulingLiberal Democratic Party (LDP) election to pick a new leader,promising to stick to Abe’s policies.

With backing of several party factions, including the onethat Kono is a member of, Abe’s longtime ally has emerged as thefront runner in the race.

Abe announced on Friday he was resigning because of poorhealth, ending his tenure as Japan’s longest-serving primeminister. A leadership election is set for Sept. 14 with LDPlawmakers and regional party representatives casting votes.

The winner is virtually assured of becoming prime ministerbecause of the LDP’s parliamentary majority.

Kono, 57, who has also served as foreign minister, said hewanted Japan’s next leader to focus on rebuilding publicfinances once the pandemic had ended.

“We need to secure our social security, how we are going toprovide social security, pensions, medical, childcare. I thinkthat’s going to be very important, and that needs to bethoroughly discussed,” Kono said.

Educated at Georgetown University and a fluent Englishspeaker, he has recently hosted live question and answer sessionon Youtube, unusual for Japanese politicians, to answer questionranging from national security to his personal tastes.

Despite his reputation as a maverick he has, nonetheless,toed the line on key Abe policies, including a tough approachtoward South Korea in a feud over wartime history.

That has differentiated him from his father, Yohei Kono, aformer chief cabinet secretary who authored a landmark 1993apology to “comfort women”, a euphemism for women from Korea andother places forced to work wartime military brothels.

Kono said he was ready “anytime” when asked when he wantedto be prime minister.(Reporting by Tim Kelly, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Yoshifumi TakemotoEditing by Shri Navaratnam and Michael Perry)

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