WASHINGTON – New U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy is known in Japan as a glamorous appointment who carries political clout, but her new role is also likely to highlight the advocacy and nonprofit work for which she is prominent in her home country.
Japanese know her as the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, but they aren’t familiar with her career mostly in the private and nonprofit sectors.
The first female U.S. ambassador to Japan is not a veteran diplomat or seasoned politician, but that kind of background isn’t essential these days, according to Sheila Smith, a U.S. expert on the bilateral relationship.
Smith, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, says Kennedy’s long involvement in charities and nonprofit activities is an asset.
Her appointment could be timely in that the activities of nonprofit organizations have gained momentum following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Smith said.
“There was a kind of blossoming” of the NPO consciousness in Japan, according to Smith, who added that nonprofit activities have been expanding beyond disaster relief-related work to cover medical and educational issues.
Kennedy’s predecessors included former Vice President Walter Mondale, former House Speaker Thomas Foley and former White House chief of staff Howard Baker.
But unlike in the past, when the United States primarily needed envoys with connections in Japanese political circles, the requirements for an ambassador have been changing, Smith said.
The fact that the president handpicked someone like Kennedy “reflects in large part the maturity of (the bilateral) relationship,” Smith said.
Kennedy has written and edited many books on the right to privacy, poetry and patriotism. She has served as a board member for many organizations, including New York City’s Fund for the Public Schools and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
She can bring that “perspective to bear in identifying where we need to pay attention” in the context of the bilateral relationship, Smith said.
During a recent trip to the United States, leading members of a nonpartisan group of Diet members promoting NPO activities expressed eagerness to work with Kennedy.
Satsuki Eda, who heads the Diet Members Caucus for NPOs, told reporters in Washington in early October that “nonprofits in Japan are not powerful enough yet.” He said he and other members hope to confer with Kennedy soon on how to speed their development.
Eda, a former Upper House president, said the delegation visited several NPO-related entities in the United States and he believes it was the first overseas trip by Diet members to study such NPO-related issues as tax systems.
Gen Nakatani, who headed the delegation, said they will also seek cooperation with business organizations, including the huge and influential Keidanren, to boost NPO activities.
Kennedy told a Senate committee hearing last month she hopes to encourage civic engagement, dialogue and public service in the younger generation.
“I would have a positive role to play in encouraging those and facilitating exchanges between our young people,” Kennedy told the Foreign Relations Committee, mentioning Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to make education exchanges a cornerstone of his reform efforts.
Smith also said Kennedy’s presence will stimulate dialogue with women in Japan, not only those already in leadership positions but “younger women who are aspiring to leadership positions.”
President Barack Obama’s selection of Kennedy as a key supporter from a prominent family showed “how much interest, emphasis and importance the president places on the relationship with Japan,” said Satu Limaye, head of the Washington office of the education and research organization East West Center.
Kennedy’s appointment “suggests to a lot of people that whatever is going on with the U.S.-Japan relationship, the president wants a very direct link with that relationship,” Limaye said.