Less than a week after Donald Trump’s upset victory in the U.S. presidential election, some in Japan were taken by another surprise.
Local tabloid Tokyo Sports, without naming sources, reported that the president-elect’s eldest daughter Ivanka Trump has surfaced as a potential pick for U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Even before her father’s victory, the blond-haired 35-year-old fashion-model-turned business-executive received some favorable coverage on Japanese TV. She was portrayed as beautiful, smart and business-savvy in stark contrast with her father’s prevailing negative image in Japan due to his racism, bigotry, and misogyny.
Trump’s unflinching trust in his family, which some have called nepotism and conflict of interest, has become more evident after he appointed his two sons, Don and Eric, along with Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, to his transition team.
Ivanka was present during the high-level, informal talk between her father and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week, sparking criticism. Trump even hinted the possibility of tapping Kushner as a special envoy to the Middle East, largely due to his Jewish heritage, during his interview this week with The New York Times.
Despite Japan’s history of hosting well-known Americans as ambassadors, legal hurdles would make it difficult for Trump to appoint Ivanka. The 1967 U.S. anti-nepotism law would bar him from appointing any relatives to a government agency. The law was passed in response to President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of his brother Robert Kennedy as Attorney General in 1961.
“I would be very surprised if he tried to nominate his daughter Ivanka,” said Robert M. Orr, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. “I suppose there are those in Japan who would welcome her as the ambassador because of her obvious closeness with her father. I don’t see any evidence to suggest she has much experience in dealing with Japan, however.”
Still, the fact that speculation on the topic emerged at such an early stage is a reminder of Japan’s obsession with top American diplomats. The country uses the ambassadors’ resume and power as an indicator of how much value the U.S. places on its biggest Asian ally.
While experts agree that current Japan-U.S. relations are better than ever, working as Trump’s ambassador to Japan could prove challenging.
Trump alarmed some allies, including Japan, by repeatedly criticizing them for not paying enough for the security umbrella provided by the U.S. military. Earlier this week Trump made it clear that he is going to ax the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on his first day in office. Trump’s potential shift to China could also upend the geopolitical balance in the region, unnerving security experts and officials in Tokyo.
“Trump sees Japan-U.S. relations as a matter of economic frictions,” said Yasuaki Chijiwa, senior fellow at the National Institute of Defense Studies. “It’s possible that he might tap somebody from the business world for the job.”
Much of the work managing the alliance and bilateral relations would be dealt with by the State Department, Japan’s Foreign Ministry and the two countries’ national security councils, as well as Japan’s Defense Ministry and the Pentagon. But depending on the clout the ambassador has on Capitol Hill and with the State Department, experts say he or she could serve as an effective speaker for both countries.
At the height of Japan’s worsening bilateral relations with China and South Korea in 2013, incumbent Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, in a rare gesture, reverberated the sentiment in Washington by expressing her “disappointment” over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war-dead including Class-A war criminals.
She also, along with other former ambassadors, helped bring Barrack Obama to Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president, capitalizing on her close relationship with the outgoing leader.
“It’s important to have somebody who knows about Japan and who can talk to the president,” said Sapporo University intercultural communication and negotiation professor Shoji Mitarai, who authored a book about former U.S. Ambassador Edwin Reischauer.
Since the end of World War II, the roles of the American ambassador to Japan have reflected the state of bilateral relations.
Right after the war, security experts and East Asia experts such as Douglas MacArthur II and Reischauer held the post, as they were required to manage the fledging Japan-U.S. alliance.
In the 1970s, businessmen such as ex-Lockheed Martin Vice President James Hodgson were tapped.
Then came political heavyweights like former representative and senator Mike Mansfield of Montana and former Vice President Walter Mondale. Rather than micromanaging the daily issues at the embassy, they were seen as the symbol of the close bilateral relationship, and had the power to directly influence policies thanks to knowledge of how Washington works.
Mansfield is particularly noted for his comments that “The U.S.-Japan relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.”
The qualification of ambassadors took a turn again under Obama and former President George W. Bush. Close friends such as Bush-appointee Thomas Schieffer and Obama-appointee John Roos took turns. Kennedy, meanwhile, was not only a well-known figure as the daughter of an ex-president, but she also had the ear of Obama.
For now, Trump may not yet be focusing on the long list of potential ambassadors given he is still to fill key Cabinet positions such as the secretaries of state and defense.
And despite Japan’s fixation on the subject, Orr said the appointment of an ambassador is a minor issue.
“I think it is more important to look at Japan in a wider context in terms of international relations,” Orr said.