If there’s one resolution we should all make for 2017, it’s to be more forgiving.
For this exemplary and tenable goal, we can thank former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, who placed the theme of reconciliation at the heart of her address to the nation just prior to the end of her three-year tenure in Tokyo.
Despite some skepticism in the U.S. about whether she had the ability to fulfill the role of ambassador (including unfounded slurs by Donald Trump), Kennedy, the first-ever female U.S. ambassador to Japan, proved to be most suitable for the job. As a strong role model with star power, she was always destined to become a popular figure in Japan. Her appointment was so welcome that doors which would have been otherwise closed swung open with ease. Kennedy left a deep impression upon Japan and will long be remembered for her positive role here.
She spoke out when she felt compelled to, such as over the dolphin “drive hunts” in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, or Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s contentious visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013, while remaining sympathetic to Japanese citizens’ concerns. Kennedy sought to understand Okinawa’s frustrations over shouldering the lion’s share of the burden of the U.S. military presence here. She oversaw a deal to limit the range of U.S. base workers protected against prosecution under Japanese law by the Status of Forces Agreement, and witnessed the largest return of land to Okinawans since the islands’ reversion to Japanese control in 1972. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida noted that Kennedy was “an exceptionally tough negotiator” in an interview with The New York Times.
As a longtime supporter of equal rights for women, Kennedy used her farewell video speech to thank the women of Japan who had inspired her and reminded her that “when women succeed, nations succeed.” A picture of Yuriko Koike, Tokyo’s first female governor, was shown in the background as Kennedy spoke of her conviction that Japanese women can lead the country. They were, she said, “too talented to sit on the sidelines.”
Kennedy highlighted her meeting with Tsuyako Matsumoto, who, via a small act of kindness, sparked Kennedy’s own love of Japan as a child. Matsumoto had sent a set of Hina dolls to the White House when Caroline’s father, John F. Kennedy, was president. Another key female figure the ambassador connected with was the wife of a wartime Imperial Japanese Navy captain who had served on the destroyer that collided with the ship JFK was on.
“We never know when our actions will have the greatest impact, and it’s often not when we expect,” Kennedy wrote to Tokyo assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura, after the latter had been on the receiving end of a male colleague’s sexist comments.
Kennedy’s tenure was also a mission to fulfill her father’s wish that Japan and the U.S. would work together toward a more peaceful world. One of the roles of an ambassador is to facilitate peace, and her message of reconciliation is what she will be remembered for.
Kennedy was a major force behind Barack Obama’s historic trip to Hiroshima, when he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the A-bombed city. This event spurred a reciprocal visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pearl Harbor, and reinforced the truth that the ability to forgive is a sign of greatness.
While apologies were neither given nor necessary, forgiveness proves to be the defining factor that allows us to move forward and shape a better world. Kennedy encouraged us to value our alliances and put our shared long-term interests first. She reminded us that while you can’t change the past, you can shape the future. Forgiveness begets peace, and peace cannot be achieved without forgiveness. This is something other countries could learn from. Why deny the chance for a better world?
Kennedy encapsulated the rewards that come to nations that have overcome past crimes against humanity, as opposed to those who continue relationships of animosity and refusal to forgive.
All people and nations are fallible. To compare the Japan of today to the former imperialist Japan is to disregard the nation Japan has become. Less obvious, perhaps, is that not accepting apology or regret is to ignore Japan’s Constitution, written under the U.S. Occupation and enacted in 1947, which instilled Article 9, promising Japan will never go to war again, a most admirable conviction.
Forgiveness is a stabilizing factor that not only allows progress but ensures that the past cannot become the basis of, or justification for, future conflicts.
Young people must be taught forgiveness to ensure they won’t use past mistakes as a pretext to justify future ones. Kennedy correctly stated that the strength of the ongoing Japan-U.S. alliance is dependent upon the young people of Japan. She gave credit to Japanese students who were the “best ambassadors Japan could ever want.”
This enduring message of peace, delivered by a highly respected and resilient woman, will surely impact this country for a long time to come, and the presidential visit to Hiroshima she helped to realize will be seen as a defining moment in this Heisei Era — the “Era of Peace.”
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