WASHINGTON – Caroline Kennedy says she hopes to carry on the legacy of her slain father, John F. Kennedy, by serving as U.S. ambassador to Japan, pledging to work for closer bilateral ties.
Kennedy, a close and early supporter of U.S. President Barack Obama, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday as she sought confirmation for her most public role since she was a playful young girl in the White House from 1961-1963.
“I can think of no country in which I would rather serve than Japan,” said Kennedy, with two of her three children and other members of the political dynasty seated behind her.
The 55-year-old said she first visited Japan in 1978 with her uncle, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and was “deeply affected by our visit to Hiroshima,” which the United States obliterated in the world’s first atomic bombing in August 1945.
Kennedy said the two nations’ postwar alliance had a “global reach,” and called Japan “an indispensable partner in promoting democracy and economic development.”
“These are areas I care deeply about and, if confirmed, I will work to further strengthen this critical partnership at a vital moment in its (Japan’s) history,” she said.
The Senate panel appeared virtually certain to confirm Kennedy, meaning she would head to Tokyo ahead of the 50th anniversary Nov. 22 of her father’s assassination. She was five days short of her sixth birthday at the time.
“This appointment has a special significance as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of my father’s presidency,” she said. “I would be humbled to carry forward his legacy in a small way and represent the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies.”
Kennedy said her father, who was seriously wounded by a Japanese destroyer in World War II, had hoped to make the first U.S. state visit to Japan. Gerald Ford eventually became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Japan in 1974.
Introducing Kennedy to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Chuck Schumer said he believed her father and other late family members were “looking down with pride” on her.
Sen. Tim Kaine said that the Kennedy family’s odyssey with Japan — from wartime enemy to the United States’ envoy — was proof that “we don’t have to assume that hostilities are permanent.”
“Who any country is at odds with today doesn’t mean that we need to be despairing that we might not be wonderful allies in a few decades,” said Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia.
Kennedy would be the first female U.S. ambassador to Tokyo and hinted she would highlight women’s rights in Japan, which ranks lower than most developed countries on gender equality in the workplace. “As a woman, I do have opportunities in Japan to represent the United States and the progress that we have made here,” she said.
While no senators opposed Kennedy’s nomination, several American foreign policy experts have criticized her, saying she has little experience at a time when Japan is experiencing high tensions with a rising China, South Korea and bellicose North Korea.
Kennedy appeared to be well-briefed ahead of the hearing, responding to senators’ questions with answers that could have been read verbatim by State Department officials.
Kennedy said that the United States took no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkakus islet chain held by Japan but claimed by China, which calls it Diaoyu, but “we do recognize they are under Japanese administration” and covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty.
She said the United States had “an interest and an obligation” to support “a peaceful resolution” and encourage dialogue to resolve disputes in Asia.
Kennedy also praised Japan for cutting oil imports from Iran and pledged to press Tokyo over its refusal to let American parents see children who have been abducted by estranged Japanese spouses. “As a parent, I can certainly understand the emotional aspects of this issue,” Kennedy said.
If her nomination is confirmed, Kennedy would join a long line of prominent ambassadors to Japan that includes former Vice President Walter Mondale, former House Speaker Tom Foley and former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker.
Kennedy has championed her family’s brand of progressive politics, while mostly avoiding the public spotlight. But she offered a major boost to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 by urging Democratic Party voters to back him over the then-perceived front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.