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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.