With a controversial base relocation in Okinawa and other high-stakes issues testing the resilience of ties with the United States, people in Japan are looking to new U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy for not just her celebrity status, but also her potential to become a new bridge between the two allies.
Still, her untested credentials as the top U.S. diplomat in Tokyo have left some Japanese wondering how well the attorney-turned-ambassador will adjust to her new role, given her scant experience in public administration or diplomacy. “He had hoped to be the first United States president to visit Japan,” Kennedy told reporters upon her arrival at Narita airport Friday, referring to her father, the late President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago on Nov. 22 in Dallas.
“So it is a special honor for me to be able to work to strengthen the close ties between our two great countries,” the 55-year-old envoy said, noting that she feels proud to “carry forward my father’s legacy of public service.”
As the only daughter of the former president, Kennedy comes from arguably the most famous political family in the United States and has attracted media attention throughout her life, giving her by far the highest profile of all U.S. ambassadors to Japan to date.
The first female U.S. ambassador dispatched to Tokyo also enjoys close relationships with President Barack Obama, having backed the former Illinois senator during his 2008 presidential bid as well as his 2012 re-election campaign, which she co-chaired.
Kennedy’s personal connection with Obama, with whom she is said to be on “speaking terms” by phone, appears to be her greatest asset, Japanese officials and experts have found so far.
“Kennedy’s merit is being in close proximity to President Obama. Her role as new ambassador would be to make use of it to the maximum extent,” said Yasuko Kono, a Hosei University professor and expert on postwar Japan-U.S. relations.
Kennedy’s direct channel to Obama, other experts say, is likely to help forge greater mutual understanding and cooperation across the Pacific because it may allow Japanese views and concerns to reach the heart of the Obama administration quickly, and possibly without bias.
And by extension, these experts say, it would serve to check China’s increasing assertiveness regarding territorial claims and interests in regional waters as Tokyo’s ownership dispute with Beijing over a group of islands in the East China Sea continues to simmer.
Noting that it will be an honor to welcome Kennedy as ambassador, a senior Foreign Ministry official expressed hope that her close relationship with the Obama administration and her legendary bloodline will further strengthen bilateral ties.
“Many people in the administration know her personally,” said another senior ministry official, citing Kennedy’s decades-long friendship with Secretary of State John Kerry, the former Massachusetts senator who knows her from her childhood.
As the new ambassador, however, Kennedy will have to deal with a host of sensitive issues, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, which have drawn opposition from Japan’s farm sector, and the proposed revision to the Japan-U.S. defense guidelines, which is emerging as a topic at a time when Tokyo is pushing for a greater global security role to counter China’s growing presence. But the most immediate among them is the long-stalled plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. The governor of the prefecture is expected to decide possibly by year-end whether to authorize the coastal landfill project needed to build the envisioned replacement facility for the base. Kennedy, whose political and diplomatic skills remain untested, may be wading into fierce local opposition while her own view on the issue remains unformed. That keeps Japanese officials and experts concerned.
“While she seems to be studying a lot about Japan, we don’t think we should force her to move fast” on the base issue, a senior Japanese official said, noting that those involved must proceed carefully, given the January mayoral election scheduled to be held in Nago, the city chosen to host the facility.
Masaaki Gabe, professor of international politics at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, says it is too soon for the new ambassador to have any real impact on the base issue over the next several months.
However, because Kennedy probably has several years to go as ambassador, she might develop a different perspective, Gabe said.
“Hopefully she will review Japan-U.S. ties from the viewpoint of ordinary people in a way that would produce some changes, given bilateral ties being what they are at the cost of Okinawa,” Gabe, an expert on U.S. base issues, said.
He said Kennedy should wait until February to visit Okinawa, given all the crucial developments expected in the coming months.
“She may misunderstand the complex situation in Okinawa as the crux of the issue,” Gabe said. “I want her to take a step back to see why the relocation project hasn’t moved for roughly 17 years.”
Anti-base sentiment is expected to strengthen in Okinawa — which continues to host most of the American military facilities in Japan decades after its return from postwar U.S. rule — if the central government begins the landfill project. If the government chooses not to proceed, however, it will likely strain Tokyo’s ties with Washington.
Kennedy will also have to tread carefully when it comes to Japan’s tense ties with China and South Korea, which are plagued by territorial disputes and differing historical views of Japan’s wartime conduct.
In particular, observers will be closely watching to see how Kennedy, known for her liberal views on such issues as abortion rights and same-sex marriage, will address the issue of the “comfort women,” Japan’s euphemism for the women and girls its military forced to provide sex for troops at brothels during the war.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said upon her arrival that he hopes that the new ambassador will “breathe new life” into various areas and pledged to work with her to further develop the bilateal alliance.