Tokyo Doesn’t Care Who the U.S. Ambassador Is (but Caroline Kennedy Will Do Fine)

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Caroline Kennedy speaks at the 2013 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award ceremony at the Kennedy Library in Boston on May 5, 2013

The Kennedys are the last big dynastic name in American politics. With no more Nixons to kick around and the Reagan offspring reduced to infighting, the Kennedys still have clout — which also makes them reliable targets for pundits. Not surprisingly, President Obama’s nomination last month of Caroline, the only surviving child of assassinated former President John F. Kennedy, as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan has raised both eyebrows and hackles.

I was in Boston when the news broke. Home of the hagiographic John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the city, and its state Massachusetts, are liberal and intellectual bastions of Kennedy boosterism. The family long made Massachusetts its home base, literally, symbolically and politically, and John’s deceased younger brother, Caroline’s Uncle Ted, was its most famous and strident Senator.

(MORE: The New Kennedys — Struggling With the Family Legacy)

Local media embraced Caroline Kennedy’s nomination. Boston University professor of international relations, Thomas Berger, cited three critical assets of a Kennedy ambassadorship to Japan: celebrity status, direct access to Obama and gender.

“Japanese women continue to look for role models who demonstrate that it is possible to be a woman and have a successful career in politics,” Berger told the Associated Press. “I expect that many in both the United States and in Japan will want to use her to send that message to the Japanese public.”

But Kennedy’s critics are less charitable, and sometimes brutal. “The argument that having a female ambassador will make a noticeable difference in the lives of Japanese women is insulting and off the mark,” says Tobias Harris, an expert in Japanese politics and author of the blog Observing Japan. “The problem for Japanese women is not the absence of role models — it’s structural forces that force women to choose between career ambitions and family life, and employers who view women as second-class workers responsible for fetching tea for the men no matter how high they rise. The gender of the U.S. ambassador will not change those things.”

(MORE: The Wasted Asset: Why Is So Little Effort Made to Harness the Entrepreneurial Talent of Japanese Women?)

Kennedy has no foreign policy experience, her critics add, and zero Japan expertise. She is a mere political appointee, offered an ambassadorship for merely being a high-profile supporter of the President during his 2008 campaign. The Kennedy nomination marks the first time in history, sniffs David Rothkopf, “that an individual has been nominated for a top ambassadorial post primarily for having written [a pro-Obama] opinion column.”

Yet that’s not how it looks on the other side of the Pacific. I was born and raised in the U.S., largely in New England, the region most possessive of, and devoted to, the Kennedy story. But my mother is Japanese, and I have lived in Japan for much of my adult life and a portion of my childhood.

The Japanese government issued a statement welcoming Kennedy’s nomination as a sign of the importance the U.S. government assigns to Japan — no small gesture amid ongoing insecurities over its rising neighbors, China and South Korea. (When former President Bill Clinton skipped Japan en route to China in 1998, the ominous phrase “Japan passing” emerged amid considerable hand-wringing in Tokyo diplomatic circles.)

And to Japanese of a certain generation, the Kennedy name resonates positively. John F. Kennedy sent his brother Robert to Japan on a goodwill tour in the early 1960s to shore up support for the U.S.-Japan security alliance, in place to this day, and dine on a little whale meat with the locals. President Kennedy’s own ambassador to Japan, Harvard professor Edwin O. Reischauer, was born and raised in the country, spoke the language, and with his Japanese wife, reached out to ordinary Japanese to forge an “equal partnership” between nations.

(MORE: My Kennedy Polaroids — Instant History)

Today, with some 40,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, escalating territorial disputes with China and South Korea, and the North Korean nuclear threat, it’s doubtful the Japanese government would object to nearly any candidate Obama proposed — foreign policy wonk, big-pocket donor or best buddy. What’s more, the current U.S. Ambassador to Japan, the lawyer, Obama campaign supporter and presidential friend John Roos, has quietly performed his duties with spectacular results. With no foreign policy experience or Japan expertise, Roos became the first U.S. diplomat to attend the annual Hiroshima memorial in 2010 and was the face of U.S. relief efforts following Japan’s triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in 2011.

“[Kennedy] has a hard act to follow,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. “Ambassador Roos has exceeded expectations and contributed greatly to strengthening bilateral ties. His actions in the wake of the tsunami gained the respect and admiration of the Japanese people.”

The real story here may be one of old-school American hubris — believing that it should even matter whether a U.S. ambassador would be a help or a hindrance. Japan has its own troubles to deal with; the identity of America’s new representative — male, female, diplomat or donor — in a long-standing, militarily dependent and deeply rooted alliance doesn’t matter that much overall in the world’s fastest growing region, and a potentially explosive one at that. One friend in Japan conceded that she didn’t even know there were any Kennedys left to serve.

(MORE: Japan Spends Millions in Order to Be Cool)

“It’s true she doesn’t have the financial or political background that typically goes with the ambassadorship,” says Susan J. Napier, professor of Japanese Studies at Tufts University and author of several books about Japanese culture and art. “But she is very smart, cultured, and well-read — all things that are still extremely important to the Japanese elite, so I think she will fit in very well. She also has class — she will not be the kind of American bull in a china shop that is particularly unappealing to the Japanese.”

In an attempt to make them comprehensible to Western sensibilities, Asians have for centuries had their thoughts and utterances translated and transfigured by Western men, who have often handled them clumsily and shattered a few ornaments in the process. Perhaps a capable and diplomatic American woman with few preconceptions, whatever her surname, can help at last to keep the china intact.

Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. He divides his time between New York City and Tokyo.

22 comments
me98
me98

Her sychophant news friends call it 'balking' at divulgance; it is actually a 'better-than-thou' refusal. America has a right to demand knowledge about how much time she will spend tending to advancement of Freescale while she is in Tokyo, as opposed to how much time she will devote to shepparding the interests of other non-Ivy League Americans. This seems to be a clear Conflict of Interest. Caroline Kennedy should be forced to divest herself from such financial conflicts BEFORE she is confirmed as Ambassador to Japan.

me98
me98

Everyone already knows that Caroline Kennedy is completely incoherent during public interviews; has no knowledge about Japan, its culture, its business practices, no knowledge about American business or military interests in Japan and Asia-Pacific region...and was only nominated because she is good at Tea parties and bought her way into favor with Obama. Everyone knows that Freescale Semiconductor Inc. has offices in Austin and Tokyo, Japan for their 19,000 Workers. People may know that Freescale lost $102-million dollars on $3.9-billion in 2012; $410-million dollar loss on $4.5-billion in 2011. What everyone in American wants to know is: How much does Caroline Kennedy and all her Trust Foundations have invested in Freescale; What is her role exactly in the operations or activities of Freescale; and Why does Caroline Kennedy feel that she has the moral right to refuse Disclosure of this information to Congress and the American people during her potential Confirmation Hearings as nominated Ambassador?

longwarden
longwarden

a "hagiographic" JFK library? What about the other presidential libraries? And Senator Ted kennedy's Senate voice "strident"? What about the others? In your attempt to prove yourself balanced you went hyperbolic and overdid the adjectives. Not great writing.

devintstewart
devintstewart

@rolandkelts I agree that the critique of the Kennedy appointment was silly. People have short memories.

me98
me98

Walter Mondale and others at least held difficult Governorships and executive-level positions before being Ambassador to Japan. Caroline Kennedy hasn't held any applicable positions, ever. In effect, President Obama is saying to the world that although a half-dozen other Countries and the State of New York have already rejected Kennedy as nominee...Japan shouldn't mind taking what’s left scraped off the bottom of the barrel.

I never believed that Japan's government would acquiesce on the nomination of this incompetent air-head...but Japan continues to amaze even me. It is very unlikely that President Obama has any true concern for what is best for Americans in Japan, or for the Japanese people themselves as pertains to this Ambassadorial posting. His only motivation appears to be to follow-through on a Reward-for-Favors promise to her...since Hillary was not able to do it while she was at the White House.

Well Japan...you have sold your soul for a bargain-basement price of only $2500 in Campaign Donations given by Caroline to President Obama. SHAME ON the President for thinking so lowly about Japan. Prime Minister Abe, shame on you for not standing-up to the White House and demanding someone who really knows about Japan...not just someone that knows the phone number to the White House.

me98
me98

What a naive and dangerous statement in light of the issues between USA and Japan, China, Korea and DPRK, Vietnam, etc. Knowing the White House and State Department phone number didn't do US Ambassador Stevens any good when Hillary Clinton's policies stranded him to die in Benghazi; Hillary instead just lied (by omission and subterfuge) to the American people and covered up all her mistakes just so that she could run for President in 2016.

She then told Congress that it did not matter (to her) if the blame was hers or not, since they were already dead (it matters to their families, but not to Hillary).There are real issues and problems that center on Japan (and spread throughout Asia-Pacific) that need deft, professional handling. A blatant slap in the face to Japan's government for President Obama to nominate a professional as Ambassador to China, but turn around and nominate a tea-party and poetry-reading amateur to Japan.

me98
me98

Look at all the critical reviews of her previous failed attempts to buy her way into politics. There was never a "buzz in Japan" about her impending appointment...other than by the self-motivated sycophants and media shills from America (like David Muir of ABCNews.go) that repetitiously posted hyped news stories on the Internet and YouTube about her, trying to generate a buzz that wasn't there originally, for their own benefit.

This reporter above sugar-coats all his words: "Japanese of a certain age" (remember Kennedy)? Certain age means those Japanese aged 70+ might remember. There are very few people still alive in Japan that even remember her father when he was President, therefore it is completely foolish to imply that the Japanese people have any kind of reverie for the Kennedy name. I have heard very ignorant people say that it is much more important to have an Ambassador that can "get on the telephone and call the President", than it is having an Ambassador that really understands the Geo/Political/Military issues in Japan.

me98
me98

Then she ‘expressed a passing interest’ in being U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Ireland, the Vatican (refused to have her), UK, etc., but did not get those either. She reminds me of Katy Perry song about changing minds like changing clothes. She worked part-time (3-days a week) for the NY Department of Education as a fund-raiser for school systems (that isn’t helpful in Japan) at salary of $1 (I guess it was lucky she had those $100-million in savings); and worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not helpful unless Japan becomes a big Arts donor); she represented her family at a couple funerals and park-dedications; she donated $2300 to Ms. Clinton’s Campaign Fund…oh, yes…she stumped for President Obama and wrote a nice article in the press praising him. She also wrote a piece about her field-trip visiting Graceland in Rolling Stone, so I guess that shows she can write on superfluous subjects.

She gathered some campaign donations as well. She certainly is a noteworthy orator (vitally important for an Ambassador)…having said ‘You Know’ 168-times during a 30-minute interview with NY1. Perhaps the Japanese Government will be impressed with that capability; it will certainly make all the official USA/Japan meeting transcripts much longer.

me98
me98

What a disappointment to hear that President Obama will select Ms. Caroline Kennedy as next U.S. Ambassador to Japan. This is not the best way to demonstrate to USF-Japan, Japanese Government, or the Asia-Pacific region that America highly values the strategic alliances in APAC.

Instead of lowering the bar to meet her capabilities…isn’t the Mission of the U.S. Ambassador to Japan all about appointing the best people to protect America’s civil and military interests with professional expertise? Why is it that these crucial Ambassadorial appointments do not take into consideration any: Credentials, Local Expertise, cross-border business or personal connections, understanding of military activities, or even a concerted desire for a posting?

Let’s review the (weak) credentials Ms. Kennedy needed to get this Ambassadorial consideration: in a Time Magazine interview on 13May2002, she stated that she saw her future as a Writer; then changing that, she attempted to use her Kennedy name and daddy’s money to step into the Senate-seat vacated by Ms. Hillary Clinton, but failed miserably in that effort (mostly because she is secretive about important issues, and did not want to tell about her $100-million dollars).

devintstewart
devintstewart

@rolandkelts You don't think anyone cares anymore? Certainly Kasumigaseki does. And US is seen as leverage against China.

rolandkelts
rolandkelts

@devintstewart Agreed. Of course people care (not my headline), but less so about a Kennedy named Caroline than some Americans think.