Caroline Kennedy to Tokyo

President Obama's choice of Caroline Kennedy to be the next US ambassador to Japan falls within a long tradition of appointing political celebrities to represent the country, a tradition that began with her father the late President John F. Kennedy.

Since then Washington has stoked the collective Japanese ego by naming such figures as former vice president Walter Mondale, former speaker of the House of Representatives Tom Foley, and former Senate majority leader Howard Baker. Never mind that these people were somewhat tarnished, in Mondale's and Foley's case, by defeat at the polls.

Another former Senate powerhouse turned diplomat, Mike Mansfield, flattered the Japanese even more with his famous words that the US-Japan partnership was "the world's most important bilateral relationship, bar none," It is a phrase continually repeated even as it has becomes apparent that other relationships, especially with China, are becoming of equal importance.

The last ambassador except one, Thomas Schieffer, might be described as a semi-celebrity, being the brother of the famous American broadcaster Bob Schieffer. But more importantly, he was also a former business partner of President George W. Bush in Texas, and thus was assumed, true or not, to have a direct line to the president himself.

Edwin O. Reischauer, President Kennedy's choice to serve as ambassador to Japan, was not a political celebrity but he was an academic superstar, a world-famous Asian scholar and Japanophile, whose appointment greatly appealed to the Japanese public, which also believed, with some justification, that he had a pipeline to the president.

The Japanese put a lot of store in the notion that the US ambassador has a direct access to the White House. Much of the initial commentary when Kennedy's appointment was first bruited last spring, stressed this: "We understand that she is extremely close to the president," said Yoshihide Suga, chief spokesman for the government. The Asahi newspaper argued that "having a US Ambassador who hobnobs with the President of the United States is viewed as a gigantic plus."

The Japanese, however, are probably exaggerating Kennedy's personal clout with President Obama. It is true that Caroline Kennedy played a role in Barack Obama's quest for the Democratic Party nomination, when she came out in his support over his main primary rival, former first lady Hillary Clinton, and Obama no doubt appreciates that support. But to say they "hobnob" together is a stretch.

But she is a genuine Kennedy, and that counts for a lot. The Japanese have a longstanding love affair with the Kennedy family that stretches back to 1962 when the president's brother, Bobby Kennedy, made a famous trip to Japan and was treated like a visiting rock star.

It was a critical time in US-Japan relations, coming only two years after massive protests to the bilateral security treaty prevented President Eisenhower from visiting Tokyo. Kennedy spoke at the prestigious Waseda University and confronted many of the left-wing students in the audience – at a time when there still were left-wing students in Japan.

The appointment of the current envoy, John Roos, a California attorney and Obama fundraiser, did not fit the pattern, although he would have easily fit the mold of most other prominent political appointees. The Japanese, used to Washington celebrities, were disappointed in the appointment, although too polite to say so publicly.

Roos mostly adopted a low-key approach, and did not bring much political sex appeal to the office but his four-year tenure in Tokyo was quietly successful. In 2010 he became the first U.S. ambassador to attend the annual memorial observances in Hiroshima marking the anniversary of the atomic bombing.

He did not speak to reporters at the ceremony, and the visit was not followed up in the next two years, meaning it was some kind of trial balloon that maybe didn't take flight. Kennedy does not take up her post, assuming confirmation, until September, so she will have a full year to get settled in before addressing that issue.

Ambassador Roos's finest hour came during the March 11, 2011, "triple disaster" of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. "This is the time to step up for the country of Japan," he said at a news conference, and his actions showed that these were not empty words.

He and the embassy stayed in Tokyo, while diplomatic missions of some 30 countries, including France and South Korea, fled to Osaka to escape radiation. The embassy did not issue a blanket recommendation for American citizens to flee Tokyo or Japan (some provisions were made to permit American military families to quietly leave if they desired).

He and the embassy staff also helped organize substantial assistance under a program dubbed "Operation Tomodachi" ("friend" in Japanese), that mobilized American troops and other assets such as the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan as well as coordinating technical assistance from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the Fukushima plant site.

As befitting a diplomat, Roos did not let himself get dragged into public debate over the several contentious issues between Tokyo and Washington, such as the festering problem of U.S. troop levels on Okinawa. It remains to be seen whether Kennedy, who like Roos, has no diplomatic experience to speak of, will be equally reticent, given the fact that the Japanese press are likely to hound her more aggressively.

Certainly, there are pitfalls that she might encounter in Tokyo, such as how discuss Japan's territorial disputes with China and South Korea, two countries of great importance to the US. And what if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's deep conservative instincts take hold again and he starts resuming visits to the Yasukuni shrine and other controversial actions?

It would have been interesting so see how Kennedy, being the first woman ever appointed to this sensitive post, would have responded to Osaka's Mayor Toru Hashimoto's inflammatory comments about "comfort women." Who knows, she may yet have that chance.