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.