WASHINGTON – Depending on which report you read, Caroline Kennedy is either definitely going to be appointed as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan or probably going to be appointed.
Kennedy’s career as a lawyer is not particularly storied, but she is the daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy.
On the surface, Kennedy’s potential appointment as ambassador to the world’s third-largest economy and major U.S. ally, not to mention a country where rising nationalism and a declining economy could bring major changes, would seem like a case of hiring for prestige rather than merit.
Alas, it probably does have a lot to do with her last name, although this can be a real diplomatic asset for Kennedy — 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 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, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi had forced opposition lawmakers out of the Diet building; half a generation after the end of World War II, American forces were making their bases in Okinawa permanent; and protesters, many of them antinuclear leftists and some of them pro-Soviet, gathered across Tokyo.
The president appointed a Japan hand from Harvard named Edwin O. Reischauer as his 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 the Allied Occupation 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.