Despite a lack of experience in foreign policy, or any other kind of politics, Caroline Kennedy looks set to receive a warm reception in Japan if her appointment as the next US ambassador to the country is confirmed.
“This will be welcomed by the Japanese people. The fact that she is the daughter of J.F.K., who is fondly remembered in Japan, will give her a very positive image,” says Takashi Koyama, a foreign-policy specialist at Akita International University.
Although there are serious issues to be dealt with, from opposition to the presence of American bases on Okinawa to strained relations with an increasingly assertive China to an unpredictable North Korea, the real day-to-day work will mostly be handled behind the scenes by career diplomats on both sides.
“In this age of rapid communications, the real decisions are made at home anyway,” suggests Jun Okumura, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. “The ambassadors are largely symbols these days. What it does say is that there are no major problems in the Japan-US relationship; it’s still a safe appointment, like to Britain or France.”
While ambassadorships to such key US allies, with Japan near the top of the list, have always been something of a thank-you from administrations, the appointment of big election campaign contributors with minimal political experience has become the norm. Ms. Kennedy has no recognized knowledge of, or connection to, Japan.
“The present ambassador wasn’t a Japan specialist, either, but he’s done a tremendous job,” says Professor Koyama, referring to John Roos, who has served since the summer of 2009 and was a Silicon Valley law firm chief executive officer and contributor to President Obama’s first election campaign. In August 2010, Mr. Roos became the first US ambassador to attend the peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima.
The following year his star rose further still in Japan due to his work in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. He was instrumental in implementing Operation Tomodachi, meaning friend in Japanese, which saw large sections of US forces stationed in the country go to work in the disaster zones, conducting search-and-rescue missions, clearing rubble, and making vital supply deliveries, including in areas around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Roos himself visited a number of towns on the devastated northeast coast and was involved in fundraising for recovery projects.
Kennedy was an early and highly active supporter of Mr. Obama in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
She will be the first female US ambassador to a country (and in a region) where women are largely notable by their absence in higher political and diplomatic circles.
“The fact she’s a woman should be good for Japan, and that she hasn’t taken her spouse’s name, which isn’t allowed under Japanese law, could be interesting,” says Mr. Okumura. Providing Kennedy’s appointment, which is as yet unconfirmed by the White House, is approved by the Senate, she would arrive in Tokyo to take up the post this summer.