Japan looks to Kennedy for new bridge with U.S.


TOKYO — With the controversial base relocation in Okinawa and other high-stakes issues testing the resilience of Japan-U.S. relations, people in Japan are looking to new U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy for not just her celebrity status but also her potential to become a new bridge between the two allies.

Still her untested credentials as the top U.S. diplomat in Japan, given her scant experience in public administration or diplomacy prior to her appointment, have left some Japanese wondering how well the attorney-turned-ambassador would adjust to her new role.

“He had hoped to be the first United States president to visit Japan,” Kennedy told reporters upon her arrival in Japan on Nov. 15, referring to her father, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago Nov. 22.

“So it is a special honor for me to be able to work to strengthen the close ties between our two great countries,” the 55-year-old envoy said, noting that she feels proud to “carry forward my father’s legacy of public service.”

As the only daughter of the former president, Kennedy comes from arguably the most famous political family in the United States and has attracted media attention throughout her life, giving her by far the highest profile among the U.S. ambassadors to Japan to date.

The first female U.S. ambassador to Japan also enjoys close relationships with President Barack Obama, having backed the former senator from Illinois during his presidential bids in 2008 and 2012.

She served as a co-chairman of his 2012 re-election campaign.

Kennedy’s personal connection with Obama, with whom she is said to be on “speaking terms” by phone, appears to be her greatest asset Japanese officials and experts have found so far.

“Kennedy’s merit is being in close proximity to President Obama. Her role as new ambassador would be to make use of it to the maximum extent,” said Yasuko Kono, a Hosei University professor and an expert on postwar Japan-U.S. relations.

Kennedy’s direct channel to Obama, other experts say, is likely to help forge greater mutual understanding and cooperation across the Pacific as it may allow Japanese views and concerns to reach the heart of the Obama administration quickly, and possibly without bias.

And by extension, the experts say, it would serve to check China’s increasing assertiveness over its territorial claims and interests in regional waters amid Tokyo’s ownership dispute with Beijing over a group of islands in the East China Sea.

Noting that it will be an “honor” to welcome Kennedy as ambassador, a senior Foreign Ministry official expressed hope that her close relationship with the Obama administration and her status coming from her legendary “bloodline” will further strengthen Japan-U.S. ties.

“Many people in the administration know her personally,” said another senior ministry official, citing Kennedy’s decades-long friendship with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the former senator from Massachusetts who knows her from her childhood and a key player in the
Obama administration.

As new ambassador, however, Kennedy faces a host of tangling issues, such as the Pacific Rim free trade talks, which have drawn opposition from Japan’s farm sector, and the proposed revision to Japan-U.S. defense guidelines as Tokyo envisions a greater security role in response to China’s growing presence.

But the most immediate among them is the stalled relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station within Okinawa, with the prefecture’s governor expected to decide possibly by year-end whether to authorize a coastal-area landfill for an envisioned replacement facility.

Kennedy may be wading in the issue amid fierce local opposition, while her political and diplomatic skills remain untested and her own view about the issue possibly unformed. That has kept some Japanese officials and experts concerned.

“While she seems to be studying a lot about Japan, we don’t think we should force her to move fast” on the base issue, a senior Japanese government official said, noting that those involved must proceed carefully, with a mayoral election planned in January in Nago, the Okinawa city tapped to host the relocation facility.

Masaaki Gabe, professor of international politics at the University of the Ryukyus, says it is too soon for the new ambassador to have any real impact on the direction of the base issue over the next several months.

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