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

TOKYO (Reuters) - 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educated at Georgetown University and a fluent English speaker, he has recently hosted live question and answer session on Youtube, unusual for Japanese politicians, to answer question ranging 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 approach toward South Korea in a feud over wartime history.

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

Kono said he was ready “anytime” when asked when he wanted to be prime minister.

Reporting by Tim Kelly, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Yoshifumi Takemoto; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Michael Perry

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