President Barack Obama's anticipated choice of Caroline Kennedy to be the next U.S. ambassador to Japan would put a woman with an international political pedigree into a high-profile U.S. diplomatic post.
Kennedy, the only surviving child of the late President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, would be the first woman to serve as the top U.S. official in Japan, a nation where many women face discrimination in employment and other areas.
The Geneva-based World Economic Forum's 2012 global gender gap report ranked Japan 101st of 135 countries, by far the lowest among the G-8 group of industrialized nations. The U.S. finished 22nd; Iceland was first in the survey, which is based on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria.
Kennedy would be "a great inspiration to well-educated women in Japan," said William Breer, a retired career diplomat who served 18 years as political officer, political counselor and deputy chief of mission at the Tokyo embassy.
Obama plans to nominate Kennedy, 55, according to a person familiar with the matter. Though she lacks foreign policy expertise, her family name, along with her professional capabilities, will make her an "excellent choice," Breer said Tuesday.
"She's led quite a private life," he said in a phone interview. "So, as a Kennedy she is known -- but not much is known about her in Japan. In that sense, she is not really a celebrity, though the name brings her a certain amount of celebrity." Low Profile Kennedy has largely sought to stay out of the political spotlight, except for a brief bid to succeed Hillary Clinton in the Senate when she became U.S. secretary of state. A graduate of Columbia University Law School in New York, Kennedy is the mother of three and the author or co-author of 10 books, from one on the U.S. Bill of Rights to "The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis."
Kennedy would occupy a position previously held by men who were presidential friends, fundraisers, and elder statesmen such as former Vice President Walter Mondale of Minnesota and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, both Democrats.
Currently, all of the U.S. ambassadors to the G-8 nations are men, according to State Department websites. The department couldn't immediately provide a gender breakdown for all U.S. ambassadors.
Tokyo is an important economic post because of extensive economic and security ties. Japan was the U.S's fourth-largest trading partner in goods in January, following Canada, China, and Mexico, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The U.S. imported $146.4 billion in goods from Japan last years, and exported $70 billion.
The diplomatic transition in Tokyo comes at a time when regional security issues rival economic ones, particularly the tensions among Japan, Taiwan and China over disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
The 43-year-old Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty and the major U.S. air, naval and Marine Corps bases in Japan anchor the American military presence in Northeast Asia. North Korea's saber-rattling and its vow to step up its nuclear-weapons program are highlighting the defense ties.
That will put pressure on the next U.S. ambassador to manage the longstanding differences between the two countries over U.S. bases in Okinawa while communicating U.S. views to the Japanese government and public and Japanese positions to the White House and State Department.
Past U.S. ambassadors to Japan include Bill Clinton appointees Mondale and former House of Representatives Speaker Thomas Foley and George W. Bush envoys Howard Baker, a former Senate majority leader, and John Thomas Schieffer, a former Texas state representative who was an investor with Bush in the partnership that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989.
While Kennedy has agreed to the posting, and the president has settled on her as his choice, an announcement isn't expected until later this month, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters. When asked about Kennedy's nomination on April 1, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "I have no personnel announcements to make." Female lawmaker Seiko Noda of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party welcomed the possibility that Kennedy would become envoy, adding she was inspired to get into politics by the career of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"I think it will be motivating for Japanese women to have such a well-known woman active in Japan," Noda said.
If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Kennedy would succeed Obama's first-term ambassador, John Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer and fundraiser. He bundled at least $500,000 for Obama's first presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance research group in Washington.
The decision not to name a career foreign service officer fits the pattern in Tokyo, where nine of the 13 U.S. ambassadors since 1960 have been political appointees, according to data compiled by the American Foreign Service Association in Washington, a group that represents U.S. career diplomats. That's a proportion similar to U.S. political appointees as ambassador to Germany.
About a third of the ambassadorial posts worldwide are held by political appointees -- most of the dangerous and hardship posts go to career officers -- and their personal ties to a president make them particularly valued in the capitals of close allies such as the U.K., France, Italy, Japan and Canada.
All 19 U.S. ambassadors to Ireland since 1960 have been political appointees, a group that includes Kennedy's aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith, who served as Clinton's envoy. Kennedy's late grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy, the dynasty's patriarch, was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's ambassador to the U.K. from 1938 to 1940.
An early backer of Obama in his 2008 run for president and a co-chairman of his 2012 campaign, Kennedy is one of several political supporters and donors being reviewed for ambassadorships to top U.S. allies.
In January 2008, when Obama was still battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy endorsed Obama in a New York Times opinion article, writing that, "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them." "But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president," she wrote.
At the party's national convention last year in Charlotte, North Carolina, she said that Obama's first-term record reflected "the ideals my father and my uncles fought for." Family Tradition Obama has chosen ambassadors from the political ranks at a higher rate than the historical average of 30 percent, according to the American Foreign Service Association. In his first term, Obama nominated 59 ambassadors, including 40 fundraising bundlers, who lacked experience in the diplomatic corps.
Becoming ambassador would allow Kennedy to continue a family tradition of public service. Her father, the 35th U.S. president and a veteran of World War II in the Pacific, was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. Her uncle Robert F. Kennedy, a U.S. senator from New York, also assassinated in 1968 while running for president. Another uncle, former Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, died in August 2009 after representing Massachusetts in the Senate for almost 47 years.
In U.S. embassies, a political-appointee ambassador often relies heavily on the ranking foreign service officer, the deputy chief of mission, who generally has language skills and long experience with the region and issues. In Tokyo, the current deputy is Kurt Tong, a foreign service officer with 17 years of Asia experience who speaks and reads Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.
The Japanese value an American ambassador with political stature and strong ties to the president, said Breer.
Kennedy's father dispatched Edwin Reischauer, perhaps the leading Japan scholar of his day, and President Jimmy Carter sent Mansfield, who was kept on by President Ronald Reagan and served for 11 years.
"Japan has had probably the most outstanding string of capable statesman-ambassadors of any country in the world," said Breer. "The Japanese appreciate that, and they have sort of gotten used to it."