Critics split on Kennedy’s new role as U.S. envoy

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Caroline Kennedy’s appointment as U.S. ambassador to Japan has divided American experts of the bilateral relationship, with her supporters hoping her family name and the fact that she’s Washington’s first female ambassador to be sent to Tokyo will lead to more opportunities for Japanese women.

But some observers note Kennedy has little to bring to Japan other than her position as a member of America’s most famous political dynasty and fear that her inexperience and unfamiliarity with the country and East Asia could lead to problems if there is a regional crisis. Others, however, urge the novice Kennedy to ignore the conventional wisdom in Washington and set a completely new course for the Japan-U.S. alliance.

“Security issues are very complex for the nonspecialist, so anyone who has not had experience in this area would have to learn the issues, U.S. and Japanese capabilities, and the details of the alliance,” said Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “Kennedy will have to make herself respected as a policy voice by those in the State Department and the National Security Council, which will be dominant in making policy.”

In a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal, Auslin said Washington-Tokyo relations face numerous problems because of Japan’s territorial and other disputes with its East Asian neighbors.

He said the new ambassador will have to assure a nervous Tokyo that even as the U.S. military faces budget cuts, it is not going to reduce its role in Japan and Asia.

But dealing with the Japan-China relationship is likely to be Kennedy’s biggest challenge and the one Auslin is most concerned about.

“There is a good chance Kennedy’s tenure will see some type of military confrontation between Japan and China. As Japan’s only full treaty partner, America would be drawn into any conflict that breaks out, and Kennedy would be America’s public face and a key liaison to the Japanese government,” Auslin wrote.

Peter Ennis, a U.S.-based correspondent for business magazine Weekly Toyo Keizai who is very familiar with Japan issues, said two other American officials involved with Tokyo will play key roles in advising and shaping both Kennedy’s views and Washington’s Japan policy.

“She will have a strong deputy chief of mission, Kurt Tong, and (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs) Danny Russel knows Japan well and has good standing in the White House,” Ennis said.

Others are urging Kennedy to question the conventional wisdom in Washington. Stephen Harner, a former U.S. State Department official with Japan experience who now works in Tokyo for Yangtze Century Ltd., said on his Forbes.com Whither Japan blog that Kennedy needs to press for the removal of U.S. bases, the main irritant to better Sino-American relations.

“The sooner Japan embarks on a path toward foreign and defense policy independence, toward accepting the end of the U.S.-Japan alliance and removal of U.S. bases, the better,” Harner wrote on his blog. “It should be the role of U.S. diplomacy, and your role as U.S. ambassador, to begin clearing this path.”

Meanwhile, since the announcement of Kennedy’s nomination there has been a minidebate in some quarters of the American media and blogosphere as to whether she might use her role as the first female U.S. ambassador to Japan to draw attention to the current state of Japanese women in politics, business and society.

But Rochelle Kopp, of Chicago-based Japan Intercultural Consulting and a longtime adviser to men and women dealing with Japan, said Kennedy’s public persona indicates she doesn’t have a particular interest in this area. She also doubts whether having a Kennedy in Tokyo is going to resonate with most Japanese women.

“If the goal were to find someone who would be an inspirational role model for Japanese women, then picking someone from the aristocracy doesn’t do it. It would have been better to find a woman who had worked her way up the career ladder,” she said. “The average Japanese working woman not from a privileged background may find it difficult to relate to Caroline Kennedy.”

Kopp did, however, suggest Kennedy push one area of personal interest once she arrives in Tokyo, one that has escaped the attention of the Washington status quo.

“Many of Caroline Kennedy’s books have clustered around the themes of poetry and American values. Poetry, particularly poetry in English, may be a good way for her to connect to the Japanese public. I can see Japanese wanting to improve their English being interested in that,” Kopp said.

  • Christopher Pokarier

    Ambassador Kennedy will do well in the role if she ignores lousy advice from the likes of Stephen Harner, which if followed would cede strategic dominance of Northeast Asia to China, and instead lunch regularly with Australian Ambassador to Japan Bruce Miller. In him she will find someone with a deep understanding of Japan, of the importance of the US alliance, and of strategic dynamics in the region.

  • zer0_0zor0

    In light of the current political climate in Japan, it certainly couldn’t hurt if Ambassador Kennedy’s presence in Tokyo registers a little resonance among the more progressive minded citizens of the metropolis.

    Creative problem solving is what is needed in Japan at present, not retrenchment and reactionary nationalism. That said, the Japanese did put the LDP back in power via the ballot box.

    We can only wait and see whether the fact that she is the daughter of a president memorialized as a progressive will in fact resonate in the public sphere here, but there is reason to hold out hope that she will have a positive impact.

    The interest in poetry noted in the article may prove to be a catalyst for her engagement with Japanese tradition and culture, as the “uta” has played a prominent role through the ages.

    Sugawara no Michizane, for example, was the most renowned poet in the kanshi genre of his age, but he is more widely known as the deified tenjin, patron saint of scholarship and learning. There is also a pantheon of 36 “immortals” in the waka genre. That can be taken with a grain of salt, but it does signify a degree of reverence with which the Japanese have held for the bard through the ages. And that doesn’t even touch on the more popular genre of haiku, which would be the most accessible.

    Anyway, there is a potential windfall to be had in the president’s choice of Kennedy as Ambassador.

    • Tony Alexander

      Ambassador Kennedy would serve well as a “Martha Stewart.” Perhaps introduced a little Americana along with something less political, like the former Ambassador to Japan.