I was a graduate student in Japan in the early 1960s and was privileged to become acquainted with America’s then-ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer. A Japan scholar at Harvard who was fluent in Japanese, he had been named ambassador by President John F. Kennedy in what turned out to be a brilliant appointment.
Reischauer was warmly welcomed by the Japanese at a critical moment in US-Japan history when the course of the bilateral relationship was being established in the wake of the US occupation. By appointing someone who spoke their language and who knew their history, Kennedy not only flattered the Japanese, but he sent the message that he took Japan seriously enough to send a serious person to Tokyo to represent the United States. By dint of his knowledge and language ability, Reischauer was able to shape opinion in Japan to make it favorable to America and he was able to send insightful analyses of the Japanese situation to Washington. He built a foundation upon which the US-Japan relationship flourished for a long time.
After Reischauer, it became standard procedure for presidents to appoint prominent persons with high government experience to the ambassadorial post in Tokyo. Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield was President Reagan’s pick. Mansfield had also spent a lot of time learning about Japan in the course of his career and while he didn’t speak Japanese he understood and emphasized that at that time (the early 1980s) "the US-Japan relationship was the most important bilateral relationship in the world bar none."
He was followed by the likes of House Speaker Tom Foley, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Under Secretary of State Mike Armacost. With the exception of Armacost who does speak Japanese, none of these were what you would call Japan experts, but all were policy heavyweights with important connections in Washington and around the world.
Barack Obama broke this pattern by appointing as Ambassador a successful Silicon Valley lawyer who had no previous knowledge of Japan, but who had been an extraordinarily successful fundraiser for the election campaign. This is not to say that Ambassador John Roos has been a bad Ambassador. Indeed, I would say he’s been pretty average. But it is to say that he’s no Reischauer or Mondale.
Now, we learn that Caroline Kennedy is likely to be the new ambassador to Tokyo. I’m sure she’s a lovely person and a good lawyer and author and, of course, she comes from a prominent American family and was wise enough to choose the right father. Even more wisely, she supported Barack Obama politically at a critical moment.
But she knows little of Japan, speaks no Japanese, and is not particularly experienced in world affairs and diplomacy. Here we are at a moment when China and Japan are at loggerheads over the Senkaku Islands. This could easily turn into a shooting conflict. North Korea is saying that it is in a state of war with South Korea and that it is turning on its nuclear generator. And the United States is trying to conclude a major international free trade agreement in which the United States and Japan will be the major players. In short, this is a serious moment — a Reischauer moment.
But this appointment is an ornamental one. It tries to evoke the good feeling of the Kennedy years, but without the substance of those years.
Do you think Caroline might have the good sense to turn it down and urge Obama to imitate her dad with a Reischauer-like appointment?
(Clyde Prestowitz is a former trade councilor in the Reagan administration. This originally appeared in Foreign Policy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)