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.