The first woman in the role. The daughter of a U.S. president. In some ways, Caroline Kennedy was a unique U.S. ambassador to Japan.
The daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy was so popular at the start of her stint that thousands of spectators flocked to see her when she presented her credentials to Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace in November 2013.
But despite her popularity, critics say Kennedy will leave behind a mixed legacy when she finishes her assignment Wednesday. While she played a great role as a goodwill ambassador, critics say she showed relatively little interest in policy issues and lacked the experience needed to lead and manage a high-profile institution like the U.S. mission to Japan.
From the beginning, opinion about her was split. Critics said she lacked political or business experience, while supporters said she was a great gift from the U.S. government.
“Japanese saw Caroline as American royalty,” said Robert M. Orr, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.
As Washington’s first female ambassador to Japan, Kennedy played a prominent role in empowerment issues, finding that Japanese women still face discrimination at work despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to address the problem.
When Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member Ayaka Shiomura faced sexist heckling from a male colleague, Kennedy personally penned a letter of support.
Like her predecessor John Roos, she was also committed to the Tohoku region, which is still dealing with the effects of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and ensuing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
She participated in the Tour De Tohoku, a 3/11 memorial cycling event, three years in a row since it was launched in 2014. She was also involved in the Tomodachi Initiative to support disaster recovery and invest in the next generation of Japanese and American youths.
Kennedy showed her charm from time to time. In December, she joined embassy staff across Japan in releasing a Christmas-themed version of a koi (falling in love) dance routine from a popular TV series.
Yet to some Japanese, Kennedy made controversial comments. She stunned Tokyo when the U.S. Embassy released a rare statement expressing “disappointment,” following Abe’s visit to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013.
She continued to stir controversy when she tweeted concerns about dolphin hunting in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. In her tweet, she said she was “deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG (U.S. Government) opposes drive hunt fisheries.”
Yasuaki Chijiwa, a senior fellow at the National Institute of Defense Studies, said it seemed Kennedy shifted gears after these incidents and started to take more forward-looking stances on historical issues, focusing on reconciliation between Japan and the U.S.
In fact, she played a great role in Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to go there. While it was Roos who laid the initial groundwork by becoming the first sitting ambassador to attend the annual ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Kennedy had Obama’s ear and connections in Washington.
“Ambassador Kennedy had a solid understanding of various issues, and she made efforts to communicate those issues with Washington very smoothly,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday. “She produced some outcomes such as President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and the reduction of Okinawa’s burden” in hosting U.S. military bases.
Chijiwa said political stability in Japan and the U.S. worked in Kennedy’s favor. She was one of only four U.S. ambassadors who did not see a government change either in Japan or in the United States. Kishida also remained her counterpart throughout her posting.
“If foreign ministers had changed often, she could not have established a stable relationship with Tokyo and report her analysis on Japan to Washington,” Chijiwa said.
Still, a report by the U.S. Office of Inspector General in August 2015 said the embassy suffered from Kennedy’s lack of management skills. The report said she brought in a chief of staff who had no experience in foreign policy.
“The role and authorities of the ambassador’s chief of staff are not clearly defined, leading to confusion among staff as to her level of authority, and her role in internal embassy communications,” the report said.
People involved in the Japan-U.S. alliance also said Kennedy lacked interest in policy issues, including difficult subjects like the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
It is true the alliance made advances under Abe and Obama. In 2015, the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation was revised for the first time in 18 years. Half of the Northern Training Area in Okinawa reverted to Japan last month, marking the biggest return of land by the U.S. military since Okinawa reverted to Japan in 1972. On Monday, the allies signed a landmark agreement to limit the type of U.S. base workers protected by the Status of Forces Agreement.
But sentiment against the U.S. and its military bases grew in Okinawa, especially after the alleged rape and murder of an Okinawan woman by a U.S. contractor last April. Anger in the prefecture against the U.S. military grew even more over the construction of helipads in Takae and an Osprey accident in December.
Some critics said her communications on controversial issues didn’t match that of Roos, who held a rare news conference at which he broke down in tears following a rape case in Okinawa in October 2012.
Experts say ambassadors usually play a more symbolic role rather than implementing policy. But a source close to the matter said that if Kennedy had been more assertive, she could have articulated the U.S. commitment to reducing difficulties in Okinawa, and strong leadership could have helped the White House and the Pentagon understand how untenable the situation was becoming in Okinawa.
“You cannot put the security relationship on autopilot for four years,” the source said. “Again, there are many talented people at the embassy, but without high-level leadership, you cannot move the conversation forward. There are lost opportunities.”