President Obama’s nomination of Caroline Kennedy as the next US Ambassador to Japan has aroused considerable comment in the United States and abroad. Some point to Ms. Kennedy’s obvious charisma, her name recognition and her political activism as ample qualification for the job. Her critics, though, are quick to point out that Ms. Kennedy is a lifelong private citizen vying for a position that has traditionally been earmarked for career diplomats, seasoned legislators and even a former vice president. Ms. Kennedy’s endorsement of the Obama Campaign during the hotly contested 2008 Democratic Primary may have earned her the job; the appointment occurred amidst accusations of cronyism leveled the Obama White House, which has recently nominated several campaign donors to ambassadorships. However, barring her pending confirmation by the Senate, Ms. Kennedy will be an agent of change in East Asia, and even her nomination offers insight into US diplomacy in the region.
Ms. Kennedy’s nomination has been well-received in Japan. As the only surviving child of former president John F. Kennedy, her name alone gives her cachet in the country that fell in love with America’s First Family during the Camelot era of the early 1960s. President Kennedy’s term and Robert Kennedy’s 1962 tour of Japan are seen as the shift from a troubled postwar relationship to the more amicable ties between Japan and the US today. Ms. Kennedy will need all the goodwill she can get — the current political climate in Tokyo is worrying.
Prime Minister Abe spent his first seven months in office laying out a three-pronged economic reform plan, which has already begun to weaken the yen and spur corporate investment. His economic policy platform — commonly known as “Abenomics” — has largely been an exercise in tact, with the purpose of securing a voting bloc that might otherwise be repelled by Mr. Abe’s right-wing foreign policy and social agenda. Following signs of economic recovery, the ruling coalition was bolstered by July’s election and added 76 seats to reach a majority in the upper house and effectively monopolize Japan’s bicameral legislature. For the first time since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006, a Japanese prime minister has a united Diet to work with and a mandate to lead for several years to come. Mr. Abe appears free to do as he pleases.
Although the prime minister has shown restraint during recent weeks and months — he quietly cancelled a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in deference to Chinese president Xi Jinping — his coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito Party appear poised to put Japan on a rightward course that is certain to agitate countries like China and South Korea. Right-wing nationalist groups fund Mr. Abe’s faction of the LDP. These groups demand regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and are now pushing for a constitutional revision to allow the use of military force. Despite a lack of public support, the oft-proposed amendment has never been closer to fruition, requiring only the procurement of votes from a plurality of New Komeito Party representatives. The LDP’s nationalist views are also becoming a liability abroad; early in August, former prime minister and current deputy prime minister Taro Aso gaffed that the LDP could learn from the Nazi Party’s success in swiftly amending Germany’s Weimar Constitution.
President Obama has taken a more proactive interest in the US – Japan relationship since Prime Minister Abe ousted Yoshihiko Noda last December. The president is eager for Japan to complete the ascension to full negotiating partner status in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) this fall, and equally concerned by the tensions caused by the Diayou/Senkaku territorial dispute between Japan and China. While TPP negotiations are progressing smoothly, President Obama has expressed a desire for the Japanese government to mitigate its nationalist fervor and eschew confrontation with China.
The current US ambassador to Japan, John Roos, has been popular there for his role in the relief efforts following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but he lacks name recognition and has relatively limited contact with the president. A Japan neophyte, Mr. Roos was appointed as a reward for his help fundraising for the Obama Campaign in 2008, and he represented a disinterested approach to relations with Tokyo. By contrast, Ms. Kennedy is one of President Obama’s most trusted political allies, with whom he shares a close friendship. She could have been rewarded with one of several coveted postings, like the ambassadorships to the UK or the UN. The president’s decision to nominate a close confidante like Ms. Kennedy to this position reflects his growing interest in recent Japanese political developments.
In spite of her inexperience, Ms. Kennedy has what many of her predecessors did not — a close, personal relationship with the president and substantial prestige abroad, even prior to her posting. She will be a help to the Obama Administration by keeping a more open line of dialogue between Washington and Tokyo, and by maintaining a more visible and tempering US presence in Japan as the Japanese government’s ideology shifts rightward.
China may view Ms. Kennedy’s appointment as a show of favoritism shown to Japan, but the move should still be welcomed in Beijing. An Ambassador Kennedy would not only be an asset in improving US – Japan relations, but would also be invaluable in bringing Japan to the table to resolve conflicts with its neighbors. Her nomination should be viewed as a sign of President Obama’s concern regarding emerging Japanese nationalism and the United States’ commitment to peaceful reconciliation in East Asia.
Colin Moreshead is a freelance writer living and working in Tokyo. His research focuses primarily on East Asian trade relations and exchange rate policy.