The case for Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan

July 24, 2013

Caroline Kennedy (Mary Altaffer/AP)

The Obama administration has just nominated Caroline Kennedy to become the next ambassador to Japan, according to sources speaking to the Associated Press, confirming previous reports from April.

The case against the nomination is pretty straightforward. Japan is the world's third-largest economy, an important U.S. ally that's only getting more important as China continues rising and, most problematically, is seeing nationalism rise under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has advocated changing the U.S.-imposed constitution that officially enshrines Japanese pacifism and the very close relationship with Washington. Kennedy, though she is a Kennedy, has little diplomatic or governmental experience; in 2009, she aborted a short-lived and poorly received campaign for the U.S. Senate.

But there is a case to be made on behalf of her appointment: that her family legacy in Japan is a bigger asset than many Americans might realize and that she can play an important role in guiding Japanese politics a bit closer to gender equality. To be clear, I'm not taking a position, but it's worth revisiting the cases on Kennedy's behalf, initially made when her possible nomination was first discussed this spring.

The Kennedy family legacy

As I wrote in April, American celebrities are highly respected in Japan. But a decision to pair a Kennedy with Japan likely goes beyond the famous family name; such a link has also been a historically crucial one in the relationship between that country and the United States.

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, the U.S.-Japanese alliance was near collapse. The year before, as Dartmouth professor Jennifer Lind recounted in a 2012 column for the New York Times, a “security treaty crisis nearly killed the U.S.-Japan alliance.” To pass the treaty, Japan’s prime minister had forced opposition lawmakers out of the parliament building; half a generation after the end of World War II, American occupation troops were making their base on Okinawa permanent; and protesters, many of them anti-nuclear leftists and some of them pro-Soviet, gathered across Tokyo.

The president appointed a Japan hand from Harvard named Edwin O. Reischauer as his U.S. ambassador to Tokyo. The next year, he sent his brother Robert F. Kennedy on a special trip to try to rescue the troubled alliance. Reischauer and Robert Kennedy, Lind writes, were able to save the “precarious” relationship that had been merely “a military marriage of convenience between Washington and a sliver of Japan’s elite.”

Remember that American military occupation of Japan had ended less than a decade earlier, in 1952. As of 1961, there was no guarantee that Japan would become the free market democracy that it is today, nor that Japan and the United States would enjoy such close cultural, economic and political ties. Lind points out that, as of the 1950s, America’s relationship with Japan looked a lot like its alliance today with places such as Saudi Arabia, in which “Washington partners with a sliver of elites who preside over populations that revile the United States.”

There are many reasons that the alliance with Japan became what it is now, but the Kennedy family’s role, particularly at the pivotal moment of the early 1960s, is unmistakable. That doesn’t mean that Caroline Kennedy has special DNA that would make her a particularly adept ambassador to Japan, of course. But her family name means something more than just “political royalty” in Tokyo -- it’s a reminder of how special the relationship is between the two nations and a badge of what it took to achieve it.

A symbol for Japanese women

As Tokyo-based reporter Coco Masters wrote in Foreign Policy this March, Kennedy could play an important political and symbolic for women in Japan's famously male-dominated government and business world.

Were Kennedy to become U.S. ambassador to Japan, [Tokyo-based consultant William Saito] says, it couldn't come at a more opportune time. "I think this appointment would be a great catalyst for addressing this issue and reversing the backward decline in Japan," says Saito.

And gender politics is not an issue that Japan can afford to ignore. With a rapidly aging demographic and low productivity — by comparison with the United States — closing that gender gap could increase the country's productivity by as much as 16 percent, according to the World Economic Forum report.

Public attitudes in Japan are arguably going backward, however. A poll conducted by the Japanese government last December shows that 51 percent of respondents think women should be stay-at-home mothers. That figure is up 10 percent since 2009 — with the increase most notable among people in their 20s. Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs and longtime proponent of "womenomics," has said that encouraging the participation of women in the workforce should be a national priority. "It should be up there with solving the fiscal deficit. It should be up there with how to improve Japan's national competitiveness. … It's staring you in the face — it's half the population."

Encouraging and facilitating greater participation by women would resonate with the Obama administration's global push to elevate women's issues. Introduced by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the policy made women and girls "a core factor" of U.S. foreign policy. And while Kennedy missed a chance to grab Clinton's New York Senate seat — withdrawing her bid early in the process — she has proved deft at directing her network to achieve her ends.

So that's the case for Kennedy, as far as I can tell. Make of it what you will.

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Max Fisher · July 24, 2013