The government shutdown this week has been a disappointing result of an ongoing stalemate over Obamacare, a fight the Tea Party is bound to lose. The shutdown may be the one thing Congress actually achieves this term that any of us will notice. Just prior to shuttering our public institutions, however, the Senate was able to work through one thing successfully. On Monday, the Senate held a hearing on Ms. Caroline Kennedy’s nomination by the President to become ambassador to Japan. This all went extremely smoothly, probably one of the fastest and most civil hearings we’ve had in a while. This got me to pay attention, but also to ask a couple of questions: for example, what makes Ms. Kennedy qualified to be the new ambassador to Japan, and what do people in Japan think about her nomination?
There has been some speculation, mostly conservative as usual, that this was a reward to Ms. Kennedy from President Obama for her help with his last two successful elections. There may be a smack of truth to this, but she does have some qualities that endear her to this role. The most obvious quality being her name; being a Kennedy will get you almost anywhere in most parts of the world, and Japan in particular is a fool for foreign glamor. She also has experience working extensively with the arts and education, both of which are areas dear to the hearts of most Japanese citizens. Also, being a woman, she would be a good example of women’s power and equality for both Japan and the US, the latter of which has never had a woman in the role of ambassador to Japan. Women’s rights issues need to be addressed in both countries and Ms. Kennedy’s prestige might be enough to yield some progress.
The post of Japan is prestigious, and much less complicated a position than, say, the American ambassador to any country we’ve bombed or insulted in the last decade, but it won’t be as easy as her confirmation hearing. Her lack of experience with East Asia will need to be overcome quickly, as there are several stalemates simmering on that side of the world. During the Senate confirmation hearing Ms. Kennedy was able to hold her ground on several of these pressing issues, including Abenomics’ effect on US-Japan trade relations, the Pinnacle Islands dispute, aid to and reconstruction in Fukushima, and the status of Japan’s National Self Defense forces. She was humble in admitting needed room for improvement on many aspects of her (possible) new appointment.
This is interesting light news for us, but what is the reaction in Japan to the coming changeover? The US has been fortunate to have several knowledgeable and highly qualified statesmen appointed the post as ambassador in the past, and these people have been well received by Japan. However, in a country with a massive amount of newspaper subscribers, there seems to be very little interest on the topic; of the five major national newspapers (Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Nikkei Shimbun, and Sankei Shimbun), only one had an original article or piece of commentary about her nomination. The Japan Times, published by the Sankei Shimbun, has been covering the issue, but not with much gusto. This apparent lack of interest could actually be a good thing.
As one commenter on the Times said, Ms. Kennedy will make a good “Martha Stewart”-style ambassador. Her unique combination of personal presence, political connections, and space from the gridlocked battles of the US national scene make her a pleasant choice. Despite her lack of diplomatic experience or cultural expertise I think we should give her the opportunity to shine in this position before passing serious judgment. Even Twitter has been pretty happy with her nomination. When’s the last time Twitter was happy with much of anything? That has to mean something!
Image of Ms. Kennedy via CBS News
Image of Mr. Abe via the AP