The fourth and final argument trumpeted by Kennedy's supporters involves gender: She would be the first woman to occupy the post. We have been told that her appointment would give hope to Japanese women who remain frustrated by gender-bias in the Japanese system. Masako Owada, now the crown princess, was the object of similar expectations two decades ago. At first, the Harvard-educated foreign ministry official was heralded by the Western press as a role model for Japanese women. But these accounts overlooked how alien Owada's life had been to most Japanese, as well as the many other sources of inspiration that existed for Japanese feminists. At least partly for this reason, they failed to anticipate how Japan's tabloid press would turn on the princess and make hers a singularly difficult life in the national spotlight.
Ambassador Kennedy, if she is confirmed, will likewise be met with great enthusiasm and high expectations. But the argument that her nomination will somehow inspire Japanese women presupposes that Japan itself lacks strong female role models in prominent diplomatic posts (news, no doubt, to Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, both women) and has no idea how to achieve gender equality without American tutelage. None of these justifications give credit to the considerable sophistication of Japanese women.
Assuming she gets the job, Kennedy will occupy a challenging and symbolic position. She will do fine until her first misstep on policy -- perhaps some slight to Japanese pride vis-à-vis China or Korea, or misstatement about the disposition of U.S. bases. Then, if history is any guide, the Japanese public will turn on her (and by proxy, the U.S. government). They will wonder -- publicly and loudly -- why Americans take Japan for granted and how Washington could dispatch such a neophyte to such a sensitive post.
One does not have to be a defender of white-shoed mandarins in Foggy Bottom to concede that diplomacy is a profession. The last few years have been rocky ones for the U.S.-Japan relationship, partly because of intense mistrust between Washington and the shaky leadership of Japan's Democratic Party from 2009-2012. We now have a vocal supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- like Kennedy, the scion of a political dynasty -- but one whose fervent nationalism has roiled the waters around Japan, not just with China but also with American allies like South Korea.
With alarmingly frequent showdowns between Japan's Coast Guard and both Chinese and South Korean ships in the waters around disputed territories, Washington is never far from being dragged into a military confrontation in the region. And this leaves aside lingering public concerns regarding radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and simmering tension within Japan about the United States itself -- from left-leaning critiques of America's military presence and encouragement of Japan's nuclear industry to the right-leaning anger about the imposition of a Tokyo Tribunal version of Japan's wartime history onto the region.
We can imagine many ways in which Kennedy's experience with non-profits and her work on educational inequality might resonate with different groups in Japan. Her connections to a range of American elites, meanwhile, may well attract a new stratum of American visitors to the country. Anyone who cares about the U.S.-Japan relationship and stability in the Far East has to hope that Ambassador Kennedy will succeed and wish her -- and the cadre of specialists who will surround her at the embassy -- well. But there is ample reason to be concerned.
Kennedy's confirmation hearing today predictably touched on trade, Japanese political economy, and East Asian security -- and the nominee appeared well prepared for the pop quiz. But even if Kennedy wins confirmation, the hearing will hopefully provoke a larger discussion of the spoils system through which many ambassadorial appointments are made. If the role of ambassador is largely that of a figurehead -- or if close ties to the president really are more valuable than experience and expertise -- then the U.S. and Japanese publics deserve to understand why and how.