US 'has no truer friend than Japan'

TOKYO - The United States "has no more important ally than Japan," new US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy said during an exclusive interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, in which she described the importance of the bilateral relationship and also urged Japan to play a more active role in the international community.

"America has no truer friend than Japan, and there is no more important place I could serve my country than in Japan," said Kennedy, the daughter of the late US President John F. Kennedy.

The new envoy, who arrived in Japan on Nov. 15, had the interview with Yoshimitsu Ohashi, managing editor of The Yomiuri Shimbun, at the US ambassador's official residence on Friday. This was her first exclusive interview with a news organisation since assuming the post.

The new envoy faces a mountain of important issues to deal with, including the relocation of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture.

"I look forward to visiting Okinawa soon," Kennedy said, who described the prefecture as "an important strategic location for both countries, particularly in light of an evolving regional security dynamic."

The Japanese and US governments have agreed to relocate the air station from Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture. This view was reaffirmed at a meeting of a bilateral security consultative committee last month, but faces strong objections from the prefecture.

Kennedy called Henoko "the best option" for the relocation. "We hope that substantive progress is made in the near future," she said.

When asked if she supports the possibility that Japan might reconsider its interpretation of its Constitution so it can exercise its right to collective self-defence, Kennedy said that is a question for the Japanese people. However, she expressed hope that Japan will play a more active role in the international community.

"Of course, the United States welcomes Japan's working more closely with us and with others in the international community to address common challenges and threats," she said. "A Japan that can more easily participate in international peacekeeping operations, for example, is in everyone's interest."

Asked about her views on the changing security environment of the Asia-Pacific region, Kennedy said: "Peace and stability centre on our close alliance with Japan-our 'full partnership'-and has been indispensable to the economic expansion that has lifted so much of Asia out of poverty."

Kennedy also expressed some concern over Japan's tense relations with China and South Korea over territorial issues and perceptions of history. She urged Japan to make its own efforts to improve ties with the two countries, which she declined to specify by name.

"We also believe that good relations between Japan and its neighbours are in everyone's interest," Kennedy said. "We trust Japan, and we trust that it will find ways to work through contentious issues diplomatically."

TPP 'game-changer'

The United States has been leading negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, in which Japan is also participating. "In terms of impact, TPP is a potential game-changer for the Asia-Pacific region and the global trading system," Kennedy said, describing the significance the United States attaches to the free trade framework.

"The substance of the negotiations will ultimately drive the timing of a deal on the TPP," the ambassador said. However, she urged the negotiators "to resolve the remaining issues with the objective of bringing the negotiations to a close this year."

Kennedy studied Japanese art at college. During the interview, she said she is interested in learning more about Japanese poetic traditions. "I am eager to play 'Hyakunin Isshu'" during the New Year holidays, she said, referring to a card game based on a collection of ancient waka poems.

Kennedy also announced she will visit the Tohoku region, which was hit hard by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, on Monday and Tuesday.

See Sunday's Japan News for excerpts of the interview with Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and more related stories.