When Japan scored Caroline Kennedy as the new US ambassador to Tokyo last year, Japanese officials and media were ecstatic. That President Obama had named such a globally recognized figure and the daughter of a widely beloved and glamorous president to represent the United States in Japan was seen as a sign of the country’s enduring importance to Washington.
But that was then. Now on the eve of Mr. Obama’s state visit to Tokyo this week, Japan is back to openly fretting about its place on America’s priority list – particularly in comparison to rising rival China.
The reason? When Obama arrives Wednesday evening, he’ll disembark Air Force One solo – without first lady Michelle Obama. Obama will be the first US president to come to Japan on a state visit in 18 years, but never mind: Michelle’s absence has thrown Tokyo into a tizzy.
Media commentators, social media discussions, academics, even some officials, named and unnamed, are wringing their hands over Mrs. Obama’s decision to sit out not just Japan but her husband’s entire eight-day Asia trip, which will also take in South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
At least one miffed member of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, has gone so far as to become snarky – so not like Japan – and intimate that the president’s solo travel must say something about the state of the Obama marriage.
But for most of those doing the chattering, Mrs. Obama’s absence is a woeful sign of Japan’s retreat from the top tier of America’s allies.
No doubt the first lady's no-show would have disappointed and prompted speculation under just about any circumstances. But what has really thrown the Japanese for a loop is that her failure to grace Japan with her presence comes within a month of Mrs. Obama’s widely covered trip with daughters, Sasha and Malia, to (shudder at the thought) China.
To the Japanese, the sight of Michelle jumping rope with Chinese kids, feeding pandas, trying out tai-chi, and meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, was more than insult added to injury. It was proof of China’s ascendency to the top rung of America’s strategic priorities and Japan’s fall to second class.
White House officials say it’s nothing of the sort, of course. Obama doesn’t accept just any foreign trip he makes to take on the stature of a state visit, they note. The fact his Japan stop rises to that level and will include an audience with Emperor Akihito says a lot about Japan’s importance to the US, they add.
Aides to Mrs. Obama note that their boss has limited her time away from her daughters over the course of the Obama presidency – a reason cited for the relatively few overseas trips the first lady takes with her husband. The last lengthy trip Mrs. Obama made with the president was last summer to Africa – a trip that also included the Obama daughters. And don’t forget that the Obama women’s China trip occurred while the daughters were on spring break, the aides add.
Of course all the analyzing and speculation – that Obama is suggesting his lack of connection with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by coming stag, or that Michelle is hinting at her disapproval of this or that Japanese policy or reality (perhaps whaling? or maybe the relative subjugation of Japanese women?) by staying home – may melt away once Obama lands in Tokyo and takes advantage of every occasion to laud what he’ll call the strong and enduring US-Japan partnership.
The real test may come next fall, when Obama is expected to visit China. If Mrs. Obama accompanies the president on that trip, the Japanese may very well hark back to the first lady’s no-show and start up the hand-wringing all over again.