Camelot in Tokyo

Can Caroline Kennedy shake up Japan’s sexist politics?

Darren McCollester/Getty Images News
Darren McCollester/Getty Images News

TOKYO — At a White House luncheon in 1961, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy raised a glass to praise then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda of Japan for sending his daughters to teach in the United States, he could not have foreseen that his own daughter, just 3 years old at the time, might also one day become one of those hostages of fortune in Ikeda’s home country. While Kennedy might not have envisioned it, his successor Barack Obama has, according to Bloomberg News, with his possible nomination of Caroline Kennedy for U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The buzz surrounding the nomination is still largely speculative. But with Bloomberg having set the pace, Japanese news media from MSN Sankei News to NHK now have a catalyst for contemplation. One headline reads: "Is Kennedy’s Daughter a Japanophile?" The rumor does raise interesting questions about what Kennedy — as a global celebrity, the first woman in the role, and an education advocate — could signify for Japan.

Kennedy, 55, has a powerful political network at her disposal. And as the first woman U.S. ambassador to Japan, she would be uniquely positioned to influence gender politics at a critical time in Japan and in the region.

Almost alone among developed countries, Japan has a lousy record on women’s issues, with social equality on par with the likes of El Salvador and Azerbaijan. As of 2011, only 12 percent of Japan’s management positions were held by women, according to the International Monetary Fund. And while there has always been a dearth of women in government, just how Japan measures up in terms of gender equality is only recently drawing more attention by those who run it from their offices in Nagatacho, Tokyo’s equivalent of Capitol Hill.

Japan might need to try a little harder: Women candidates won 38 of 480 seats in December’s lower house election, and only three of the 44 ministers and senior vice ministers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new cabinet are women. Elsewhere in the region, President Park Geun-hye assumed office as South Korea’s first woman president last month, and last year Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s first female candidate for president. In the World Economic Forum’s 2012 report on the global gender gap, Japan ranked 101st out of 135 countries, down three places from last year. China ranked 69th.

Worse yet, Japan is facing a decline in gender empowerment, says William Saito, public policy advisor and CEO of InTecur, a Tokyo-based consultancy. He often cites the numbers of women board members, the low percentage of women leading institutions of higher education, and even women’s difficulty securing loans as evidence of gender inequality. Were Kennedy to become U.S. ambassador to Japan, he says, it couldn’t come at a more opportune time. "I think this appointment would be a great catalyst for addressing this issue and reversing the backward decline in Japan," says Saito.

And gender politics is not an issue that Japan can afford to ignore. With a rapidly aging demographic and low productivity — by comparison with the United States — closing that gender gap could increase the country’s productivity by as much as 16 percent, according to the World Economic Forum report.

Public attitudes in Japan are arguably going backward, however. A poll conducted by the Japanese government last December shows that 51 percent of respondents think women should be stay-at-home mothers. That figure is up 10 percent since 2009 — with the increase most notable among people in their 20s. Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs and longtime proponent of "womenomics," has said that encouraging the participation of women in the workforce should be a national priority. "It should be up there with solving the fiscal deficit. It should be up there with how to improve Japan’s national competitiveness.… It’s staring you in the face — it’s half the population."

Encouraging and facilitating greater participation by women would resonate with the Obama administration’s global push to elevate women’s issues. Introduced by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the policy made women and girls "a core factor" of U.S. foreign policy. And while Kennedy missed a chance to grab Clinton’s New York Senate seat — withdrawing her bid early in the process — she has proved deft at directing her network to achieve her ends.

Working with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein from 2002 to 2004, Kennedy was credited with securing tens of millions of dollars to support the city’s public schools as director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships. That boosted her image as a passionate and vocal advocate of education and literacy as central to a stronger American workforce.

Kennedy could also be a powerful example to Japanese women. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, an attorney, and author and editor of nine bestselling books, with topics ranging from constitutional law to poetry, she is also president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and chair of an advisory committee to the Institute of Politics at Harvard.

But most of all, Kennedy would bring her family’s still-tremendous mystique to the job — and turn the post into a powerful platform on both sides of the Pacific. One adoring observer noted that she and her husband, Edwin A. Schlossberg, opted for Tokyo and Osaka (and Hawaii) over Europe as their honeymoon in 1986.

Like everywhere else, in the 1960s, Japan was riveted by images of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy as veritable American royalty. When Ikeda attended Kennedy’s state funeral in Washington, the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) began its coverage at 7 a.m. and picked up ratings of 40 percent. And in a country still very much captivated by the Kennedys, her celebrity could also provide a subtle antidote to the growing concern among Japanese officials that Japan is being eclipsed in American eyes by its chief regional rival, China.

Female politicians in Japan certainly know something of celebrity as well — perhaps because there are so few of them in places of power. In October 2012, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appointed Makiko Tanaka, daughter of iconic postwar Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, minister of education, reportedly with the hope that her "public appeal" would help policymaking. It at least got her the post. As Japan’s first female foreign minister a decade prior, she had a reputation for controversy bred by disagreement with bureaucrats and criticism of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, media darling and president of her Liberal Democratic Party.

Kennedy lacks diplomatic experience and has not held political office. But she comes across as a no-nonsense pragmatist whose passion for issues — such as education, a hot-button topic in Japan — could land her in the right place at the right time if she has Obama’s ear.

If she is indeed nominated and confirmed, Kennedy will join a long line of attorneys in the post. The current ambassador, former CEO John Roos, was also a prominent technology lawyer in Silicon Valley. So was his predecessor Thomas Schieffer (whose brother, Bob, enjoys considerable celebrity as a CBS News host), who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005.

Still, Kennedy faces a steep learning curve. She’ll have to be instantly adept at reading the politics of sensitive trade and military issues, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact and the politically charged relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa.

Whomever Obama decides to name, the next U.S. ambassador to Japan will play a role in determining U.S. involvement in Japan’s myriad economic and security challenges in the region — some new, some perennial. The ongoing showdown with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea saw sales of Japanese products plummet. A separate territorial spat with South Korea resulted in the boycott of Japanese goods starting last week. North Korea’s nuclear test last month and the occasional rocket launch have ratcheted up tensions in the region. And there’s always the fluctuating state of the yen, which has declined roughly 15 percent against the dollar over the past three months. Just as uncertain: Japan’s top leadership. Roos has worked with the administrations of five different Japanese prime ministers since his appointment in May 2009.

If confirmed, Kennedy would have an opportunity to be defined by her actions, not by her celebrity, gender, or even her foreignness. In that way, she might eventually emerge as a powerful role model for Japanese women who would benefit greatly from the same: the opportunities to make the most of their skills and talents — those yet unrecognized, perhaps even unknown, to paraphrase a famous statesman.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola