The Japan News The United States — Japan’s closest ally — will witness the transfer of power from President Barack Obama to President-elect Donald Trump at the inauguration ceremony on Friday. Toward the end of Obama’s term, bilateral ties reached a new pinnacle of maturity — as exemplified last year by his visit to Hiroshima and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor. In a recent interview, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who is expected to leave Japan shortly, offered her vision of the U.S.-Japan partnership.
Q: You saw President Obama and Prime Minister Abe make their speeches in their historic visits to Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor. What are your views on the U.S.-Japan relationship?
Kennedy: First of all, I think that both the president’s visit to Hiroshima and the prime minister’s visit to Pearl Harbor really show how far our two countries have come together, how strong the partnership between our leaders is, and really the strength and depth of the relationship between our peoples.
To be able to be at both of those events during my ambassadorship, I feel so incredibly fortunate and privileged. I think when you get to be part of something like that, it really gives you a stronger sense of responsibility to continue to work for reconciliation and peace in any way that I can.
In terms of Pearl Harbor specifically, knowing that it was the end of the president’s administration and that Prime Minister Abe had come to do this made it all the more meaningful. I saw the prime minister greeting the veterans and kneeling to meet them. It was really a very touching moment.
My favorite was when one of the veterans presented Prime Minister Abe with his business card and the prime minister had [some], all, right in his pocket, and he immediately presented the veteran with one.
Q: That’s so Japanese.
A: It’s so Japanese! It was so perfect. I just happened to be behind, so I could see what was happening. Well, he also gave his card to President Obama. Then came the prime minister, but the prime minister had his own to reciprocate to exchange. I thought it was really a great moment between them.
It [Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor] was truly a historic chance to celebrate the partnership between the president and the prime minister, as well as the alliance between our two countries. It was a chance to bear witness to the power of reconciliation — which may be the highest achievement of which human beings are capable.
I was reminded of Prime Minister Abe’s speech before the U.S. Congress when he called our relationship “an alliance of hope.” That is a beautiful description and one that we should all work to uphold. Watching President Obama and Prime Minister Abe lay wreaths at Hiroshima and toss petals into Pearl Harbor just one year later made me think of the lines from a poem by [the Irish poet] Seamus Heaney:
“Once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”
Q: You went to Hiroshima as a young university student with your uncle, the late U.S. senator Edward Kennedy. Did that experience make you feel that it was important for Secretary of State John Kerry or President Obama to visit Hiroshima?
A: I was so grateful to my uncle for having included Hiroshima on our trip, because most people just go to Tokyo and Kyoto. I think the experience really always stayed with me, even though I wasn’t really very connected to Japan. And so, when I came back, I really wanted to both go to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and also to go back to Hiroshima both for the commemorative ceremonies as well as just to visit the community.
Having the chance to work with Foreign Minister [Fumio] Kishida, who represents Hiroshima, and the fact that my father had worked with [former] Prime Minister [Hayato] Ikeda, gave it an additional layer of meaning.
So I felt a sense of connection to the community, but really it was being here in Japan that gave me an understanding of the importance that would attach to this visit.
I think that the foreign minister did a wonderful job of receiving the other G-7 foreign ministers in Hiroshima. Secretary Kerry really was deeply affected by his time there and his visit to the museum. That also helped people feel like the president’s visit would be really something that the Japanese people would welcome.
History bends to justice
Q: Please tell us how you persuaded President Obama to visit Hiroshima.
A: President Obama has a strong sense of history — and he often quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The arc of history bends toward justice.”
He also has a deep affinity for Japan. The issues of nuclear disarmament, nuclear security and non-proliferation have been important to him throughout his career, and the fact that our two countries commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015 made the timing right.
My own trips to Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced me that President Obama would be welcomed with open hearts by the people of those communities and by the entire Japanese public. I shared that view with my colleagues but ultimately the decision was made by the president himself.
The visit had great personal significance for me as nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation were also issues that defined my father’s presidency. President Kennedy’s proudest accomplishment was the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, so to accompany President Obama to Hiroshima will always be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. And that privilege has given me a greater sense of responsibility to work for a more peaceful world.
I was really happy because I was able to present two cranes [President Obama personally made] from the original batch along with a letter from the president to Nagasaki also, to the mayor [of Nagasaki] on Friday [Jan. 6]. When I went back to Washington in November, I asked if we could give two more cranes to Nagasaki. There were a few from the original batch, so the president was happy to do it.
Q: What kind of impression did the museum leave on the secretary or the president?
A: Secretary Kerry gave his very powerful and heartfelt remarks at the press conference. So he really spoke to that more eloquently than I could right now.
But I can tell you, he was only supposed to spend, I think, 20 minutes or half an hour there and he spent more than an hour. He really looked at every single exhibit. Having himself served in Vietnam and being secretary of state now, trying to end so many different conflicts around the world, really made a deep impact on him. He was very interested in all the different aspects of the museum exhibits.
The president didn’t have as much time, but I think that he was able to see some of the photographs and artifacts. I think that those made a deep impression on him. It was something that he wanted to do very much.
Committed to Okinawa
Q: What do you consider to be the most valuable achievement of your three years as ambassador to Japan?
A: Standing on the USS Arizona with President Obama and Prime Minister Abe was a testament to the partnership of two great leaders, and to the many bonds that connect our nations. It was gratifying to hear the president say that “our alliance has never been stronger.”
In every ambassadorship, there are both enduring issues and unpredictable events. In my case, both were linked to Okinawa. Reducing the impact of our bases, while building support for our presence in a tense regional security environment, has been a major aspect of my job over the past three years.
I am pleased that the United State returned 4,000 hectares in the Northern Training Area to the government of Japan. This represents the largest land return since the reversion of Okinawa to [the] Japanese administration and I am grateful for the hard work and support from many colleagues and counterparts in Tokyo, Washington and Naha. Our governments have also concluded an international legally binding agreement to clarify the scope of the civilian component under the Status of Forces Agreement, which we hope to sign soon.
I hope people will see these two developments as powerful evidence of the U.S. commitment to reduce the impact of our bases. I believe they create positive momentum for the continued implementation of the Okinawa Consolidation Plan [announced in April 2013], including the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Q: Is there anything you feel that you are leaving behind unfinished?
A: I would describe the Trans-Pacific Partnership [free trade agreement] as unfinished business. This multi-stakeholder agreement would provide significant benefits to the American economy and to regional trade and security. Prime Minister Abe deserves great credit for securing its passage in Japan, and I hope it will pass the U.S. Congress eventually.
Q: What are your favorite things here?
A: I admire the thoughtfulness, generosity and respect for others, the commitment to excellence, and the love of nature that exist in Japanese art and culture as well as in daily life. I have learned a lot about the importance of small gestures and I appreciate the warmth and friendship that has been shown to me by so many people.
Some of my favorite places are the monastery at the Chusonji temple, the Jomon site in Aomori, and the Uesugi Yozan festival in Yonezawa.
I had a great time climbing Mt. Daisen with my children and I was fascinated by my visits to the battlefield of Sekigahara, the fish market in Kesennuma and the floating offshore wind turbine in Fukushima.
I was thrilled to talk with some of the giants of Japanese art, culture, and science — Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo, Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami, Seiji Ozawa and Makoto Ozone, Daito Manabe and Kazuyo Sejima, Koichi Wakata and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka — all of whom I admire greatly.
Everyone always asks me whether I like Japanese food and the answer is, I love it! I have visited 35 prefectures and when I travel we usually don’t have time to stop for meals. Instead, I get my favorite snacks to eat on the Shinkansen: edamame, chestnuts, senbei, Pocky sticks and green tea. I will really miss them.
I know there are a lot of “frustrating” things in Japan, but I didn’t experience most of them. One thing I don’t understand is why the swimming season is so short when it is warm through October. At home, we always jump in the ocean on Thanksgiving Day at the end of November, even though it is freezing.
Q: You have been an ardent advocator of empowerment of women. Is the glass ceiling thicker here than in the United States?
A: I can’t speak from direct personal experience in Japan, but I think that the glass ceiling is almost as thick in the United States, though it is manifest in different ways. In Japan, women indisputably have reproductive rights and access to health care, while those are under attack in the United States. In America, it is easier for women to advance in their careers, and they can use whatever name they choose, but there are limits.
It is true in both countries that women with children find it more difficult to succeed in their careers because there is insufficient support for family responsibilities. For example, even the State Department, which has many talented female Foreign Service Officers, does not offer paid maternity or paternity leave. And women who are single parents have an even more difficult time balancing work and family. As developed nations, both Japan and the United States have a long way to go before parity of the sexes is achieved.
In Japan, as in the U.S., women’s full economic participation will require continued effort and advocacy, equal pay for equal work, greater flexibility and institutional support from government, business and other family members — including men. I have met so many dynamic and talented women here in Japan, and an increasing number of men who support gender equality, so I am hopeful that progress will continue. Prime Minister Abe deserves great credit for making this issue a national priority. Now it’s time for everyone else to help meet the goal.
Sharing path with father, uncle, son
Q: What can we expect of the bilateral relationship under the new American leadership?
A: My own experience captures the distance that the U.S.-Japan relationship has traveled. As the daughter of a Pacific War veteran, who hoped to be the first sitting [U.S.] president to visit Japan, it was especially significant to serve as ambassador during the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
I felt history disappear when I held the hand of the widow of the captain whose destroyer sunk my father’s PT-Boat.
Another remarkable moment was standing on the same stage at Waseda University where my Uncle Bobby [then Attorney General Robert Kennedy] quieted a crowd of students opposed to the security alliance in 1962. My son and I joined Prime Minister Abe, whose grandfather faced similar protests, to talk about diversity and inclusion in front of a new generation eager to solve global challenges together with their American counterparts.
Those two events capture the distance our countries have traveled together and the potential for the future.
With regard to a new administration, it’s important to remember that the U.S.-Japan alliance has been built by generations of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats. It is a great achievement, and I am confident that work will continue under the next administration.
This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Deputy Managing Editor Saki Ouchi.
Caroline Kennedy became the first female U.S. ambassador to Japan in November 2013. Daughter of the 35th U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, she was born in 1957. Ambassador Kennedy has worked as a lawyer, author and education advocate. She has also served as president and director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. She holds a BA in Fine Arts from Harvard University and a J.D. degree from Columbia University.