Kennedy magic and US-Japan relations

Kennedy magic and US-Japan relations
Newly appointed US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (L) is greeted by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before their luncheon at Abe's residence in Tokyo November 20, 2013. Caroline Kennedy, daughter of slain US President John F. Kennedy, arrived in Japan to take up her first high profile job in public office, making a late start to a political career for which her family is renowned.

The new US Ambassador to Japan has captured the heart of Japan since her arrival in Tokyo on Nov 16.

Most of Japanese media and public rediscovered Ms Caroline Kennedy, daughter of president John F. Kennedy who was assassinated 50 years ago, when word came out in July that President Barack Obama had nominated her to be his ambassador to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The news was a happy surprise to most people in Japan where the name "Kennedy" stirs no less magical effects than it does in the United States.

The Japanese, in particular, have a good reason for harbouring a special feeling for the Kennedys. On that fateful day of Nov 22, 1963, everyone in Japan was glued to the TV sets anticipating a happy event: the inauguration of the first live satellite TV transmission from the United States.

When the long-awaited first image of the historical satellite transmission finally appeared on the screen, it was the breaking news of the US president's assassination. Imagine the shock of millions of Japanese TV viewers.

Even before Ms Kennedy set foot in Japan, the media in this country started commenting at length on the joy and great honour for Japan to have a "Kennedy" - and a charming one at that - as US ambassador, aware that a US ambassador in Japan means much more than a simple diplomat.

Besides the star power of "the American princess", they point to the fact that Ms Kennedy is very close to President Obama, having given her full support to his election in 2008 and re-election in 2012.

This fact alone, they concur, demonstrates the importance that the US President attaches to relations with Japan, still considered America's closest ally in Asia.

It is understandable that so many of the overwhelmingly US-friendly Japanese feel flattered by what they see as a "special favour from America". Such a favour, if indeed it is one, was all the more welcome following several years of disquieting glitches in the US-Japan relationship.

In fact, especially since Mr Shinzo Abe was elected Prime Minister last year, there has been a vague disturbing impression on this side of the Pacific that Japan is no longer the top priority in Asia in the mind of US foreign policy planners, and that the US administration's focus in Asia is now on building a new and delicate relationship with China and on avoiding unnecessary tension with the Asian giant.

In this respect, President Obama's administration could hardly hide its discomfort with the new hawkish Japanese leader's tendency of - unnecessarily - irritating China on sensitive issues such as the Yasukuni Shrine and the revision of Japan's history of aggression.

Amid the general media exhilaration over Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, no stone has been left unturned in her life to show that she is a fine connoisseur of Japan.

For example, the fact that she had visited Japan twice, including a trip to Hiroshima and a honeymoon several decades ago, has been dug up to confirm her "special interest" for this country. And she became instantly an "expert on Japanese culture" for quoting in a speech an ancient Japanese poet.

In this national frenzy, only a few people, mostly Mr Abe's critics, are cool-headed enough to wonder whether his team really had reason to be so entirely gratified by the appointment of Ms Kennedy. Their reservations can be summed up in the following points:

Even though many US ambassadors are known to be politically appointed, few in Japan have noticed that Ms Kennedy, despite her personal charm and intelligence, has little or no experience in politics, diplomacy or business.

This lack can be rather unsettling considering that US-Japan relations, as close as they are, are far from being peaceful. Seasoned diplomats before Ms Kennedy have failed to solve the thorny issue of relocating US military bases in Okinawa where anti-US sentiment is strong.

And hard negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership (TPP), pushed by the Obama administration, are a painful issue which deeply divides public opinion in Japan. Not to speak of the myriad of problems involving adapting the US-Japan alliance to the ever-changing security environment in Asia.

Even assuming that Ms Kennedy can successfully exploit her closeness with President Obama to advance pending bilateral issues, observers point to another generally overlooked factor: Ms Kennedy, like the rest of her clan and also like President Obama, is a staunch liberal whose political stance is very far to the left of that of right-wing Mr Abe.

Diplomatic niceties aside, it is therefore an open question whether the dovish Ambassador Kennedy can get along with the hawks in power in Tokyo. This has led some commentators to even speculate that part of her mission may actually be that of keeping a watch on Japan's further drift to the right.

As Mr Jituro Terashima, president of Japan Research Institute, said recently, given the new US ambassador's well-known personal concern for human and women's rights, it would be interesting to hear her opinion on issues such as "comfort women" (Asian women forced to prostitute for wartime Japanese soldiers) which are gaining attention in the US and which her new friends in Tokyo are trying to deny.

Good luck, Caroline.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a retired French diplomat. Born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, he has served in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore and Beijing.


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