INTERVIEW/ Caroline Kennedy: Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul should 'reach across history' for reconciliation

January 23, 2014


Japan and its neighbors should pursue historical reconciliation to deal with the exacerbated tensions in the region, Caroline Kennedy, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, said.

“Citizens in all countries should encourage and support leaders who reach across history to build a peaceful future,” the daughter of late U.S. President John F. Kennedy said in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

She criticized China’s recent decision to set up its own air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, saying “it increases the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents.”

“We want a constructive engagement with China,” Kennedy said, but noted the U.S.-Japan relationship is not “defined or dictated by China’s actions.”

Kennedy downplayed the possible impact of the recent re-election of the Nago mayor in Okinawa Prefecture, who opposes the plan to relocate the U.S. Futenma air station to his city.

“I am sure that the Futenma relocation and base consolidation plan will move forward, as we agreed in April of last year,” she said.

Kennedy welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s initiative to lift Japan’s decades-old self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense, saying, “Japan will be a more effective alliance partner if its Self-Defense Forces are able to help defend American soldiers or sailors if they are attacked.”

But she added, “By building trust among its neighbors, Japan can more confidently play a constructive role in regional and global security affairs.”

The full text of the interview follows:


Question: What made you decide to take up this job as U.S. ambassador to Japan? What specific goals do you intend to accomplish?

Answer: It sounds like a cliché, but we truly live in an interconnected globalized world. Having the chance to serve my country while also learning about another culture, especially one as important and complex as Japan, is the greatest opportunity I could imagine. Japan and the United States are the closest of allies, and we work together for democracy, human rights and economic opportunity around the world. So being the U.S. ambassador here gives me the chance to work for the things I care about on an international scale.

There are many important issues that need attention. They are issues that are critical to U.S. foreign policy and also Japanese national priorities. I will be working with my colleagues at Mission Japan and in Washington to advance those goals. I hope to make a positive contribution to the national dialogue surrounding women’s economic empowerment and political participation. I am working to increase the number of student exchanges between our two countries. And I think it is important for me to learn more about the role of history as it pertains to promoting reconciliation and the reduction of tensions in the East Asian region.

Q: Touching upon the legacy of your father, President John F. Kennedy, you stated at the Senate confirmation hearing last September, “I would be humbled to carry forward his legacy in a small way.” Do you think the fact that you are a Kennedy makes your ambassadorship any different from your predecessors? And if so, how?

A: United States ambassadors to Japan are an extraordinary group of men, and I am proud to be the newest member and first woman. I think it’s a little early to start comparing me, but I can say that I am extremely proud of my family legacy and the values that my father and my uncles fought for, and I will work hard to live up to them during my service here.

Q: What are these values?

A: I am conscious of my responsibility to uphold the ideals that my father represented--a deep commitment to public service, a more just America and a more peaceful world.

Q: In response to the visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Yasukuni Shrine last December, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued a statement that said, “The United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” What was the intention of the U.S. government in issuing that statement? I understand there have been more than 4,000 tweets sent in response to this statement on the website of the embassy, and that many of them were critical. Were “disappointed” and its translation, “shitsubo,” the wrong choice of words?

A: One of the hallmarks of a strong partnership is the ability to speak honestly with each other when there are differences. Japan is a valued ally and friend. We are close partners on a host of issues--that will not change. Having said that, I think the wording of our statement was clear. The United States is concerned about tensions in the region, and we were disappointed by the prime minister’s decision.

We heard from a lot of different people after the statement, not just in social media but in all sorts of different ways. There are a lot of opinions out there. One of the great things about serving in a democracy is that I get to hear what everyone thinks.

Q: The statement said that the United States hoped that both Japan and its neighbors would find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past and to improve their relations. But the reality is that we have not seen such positive moves from any of the countries involved. What specific steps do you think Japan and the neighboring countries, respectively or together, should or can take?

A: The United States and Japan continue to focus on moving the relationship forward. We have a significant set of priorities for 2014. The U.S. hopes Japan and others in the region will work constructively together to support regional stability and create the conditions for future economic growth.

Since you asked about Japan’s neighbors, I want to take a moment to talk about history and reconciliation. This fall, there was an event that previously might have been thought unimaginable. A group of Americans who suffered as Japanese prisoners of war during the Second World War returned here at the invitation of the Japanese government. Participating took enormous amounts of courage for all those involved.

There are many other examples of ways in which people here worked to build a peaceful future out of a difficult past. It is not easy, but citizens in all countries should encourage and support leaders who reach across history to build a peaceful future. It took courage on the part of the participants to come back to Japan and learn how Japan has changed. But it also took courage on the part of Japan to acknowledge past mistakes and honor the former POWs.

Secretary of State (John) Kerry and Secretary of Defense (Chuck) Hagel’s visit to Chidorigafuchi Cemetery was another gesture that demonstrated reconciliation, as those two former soldiers laid flowers to show respect for the Japanese people who died in World War II.

Q: Why did you go to Nagasaki only a few weeks after your arrival in Japan? Secretary of State John Kerry described the nature of Japan-U.S. relations at the reception held in your honor in Washington as follows: “This is a symbol of reconciliation, symbol of possibilities, symbol of people who know how to put the past behind them, and look to the future and build the future together.” Did you try to set an example of “reconciliation” and “putting the past behind”?

A: I don’t think I’m “setting” an example; I think I’m following in a tradition. I first visited Hiroshima in 1978, with my uncle, Senator (Edward) Kennedy. And that really made a profound impression on me. I was a college student at the time, and I think it really affected me deeply, in terms of the importance of working for peace and continuing to work, as we move throughout our lives, as my uncle did.

So, the chance to go to Nagasaki was something that really meant a lot to me. The community there was so appreciative and welcoming to me. I didn’t necessarily expect that people would come out and say “thank you” for my visit.

I found it very, again, deeply inspiring, and meeting with the hibakusha as well, who were talking about their experiences and the work that they have done on behalf of Japan and the United States. So, I think that there is such a tradition between our countries and our peoples, and I would hope very much that I could make a contribution toward those efforts, going forward.

Q: How has China’s recent establishment of the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea changed the regional security environment? Do you think it shows China’s intention to challenge the U.S. rebalance?

A: We have been quite clear that China’s declaration of an ADIZ in that area was a provocative act, an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo. It increases the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents. The United States does not recognize the recently announced ADIZ. It will not change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.

I cannot overstate the importance of the Asian region--including China--to the future of the United States.

The recognition that the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia is at the core of the U.S. rebalance. And Japan, as our most valued ally and trusted friend, is at the center of that strategy.

We want a constructive engagement with China, but at the same time, the U.S.-Japan relationship is not defined or dictated by China’s actions. Our partnership is a forward-looking relationship that will shape the future of Asia to ensure it is one of continued peace and prosperity. Japan is our most valued partner.

Q: Susumu Inamine, the incumbent mayor of Nago city in Okinawa Prefecture, was re-elected on Jan. 19. He has been opposed to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko area of Nago. Are you not concerned that the current relocation plan, which both the U.S. and Japanese governments confirmed last April, may not be implemented as planned now that the local community has once again said “no” to the plan?

A: First of all, we are very appreciative of all that people in Okinawa and other communities in Japan do in hosting the U.S. military. I am extremely conscious of the bases’ impact on those communities.

I have met and thanked local officials near the bases that I have visited because all Americans understand and appreciate those communities’ contributions to our mutual security. I am looking forward to visiting all the base-hosting communities, particularly in Okinawa, which experiences the greatest impact.

As an American, I know that democracy thrives on public participation, elections and the careful balancing of national and local interests. I am sure that the Futenma relocation and base consolidation plan will move forward, as we agreed in April of last year, so that we can keep the necessary forward deployed force posture while minimizing the impact on communities in Okinawa and elsewhere.

I am looking forward to visiting Okinawa in the near future, as I have heard so much about the local history and culture, and I am eager to experience it myself.

Q: Are you saying that in the Futenma relocation case, national security needs should be given higher priority than local opposition?

A: Actually, I think the Futenma Replacement Facility is a good example of balancing local concerns with national security. For instance, the V-shape runways, which I am told are very unusual for a military facility, will enable us to severely limit the noise impact on residents near the facility. We have tried to listen to the concerns of the communities near Camp Schwab while also designing a facility that will enable us to maintain deterrence in the region.

Q: With regard to the issue of Japan lifting its self-imposed restriction on the right to collective self-defense, you stated at the Senate confirmation hearing last September, “I’d watch it very carefully and work with people here in Washington and Tokyo to make sure we understand and are supportive of that process.” Are you still supportive of the process?

A: Whether Japan should reinterpret its Constitution is an issue for the Japanese people and their elected representatives to decide, after genuine and informed debate. However, the U.S. understands why some in Japan would like to revise some of the restrictions. Japan will be a more effective alliance partner if its Self-Defense Forces are able to help defend American soldiers or sailors if they are attacked while, for example, participating in a peacekeeping operation, or if they are targeted by a hostile missile strike.

Japan has proven over decades that it is a peaceful country firmly rooted in democratic values, a country that makes enormous positive contributions to the region and the world. Japan will be an even more effective alliance partner as it enacts its security policies transparently and explains those policies to its neighbors. By building trust among its neighbors, Japan can more confidently play a constructive role in regional and global security affairs.

Q: In negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) free trade agreement, the United States has been calling for member countries to put everything on the table for the trade talks, but Japan has sensitive agriculture products, such as rice and dairy. With negotiations already in the endgame, how can the United States and Japan figure out a way to reach an agreement?

A: When the leaders and ministers of the TPP countries launched the initiative in 2011, they strongly endorsed the importance of achieving a high-standard, comprehensive agreement. They have repeated that determination many times. In February 2013, Japan and the United States concluded a joint statement where both countries, while recognizing sensitivities, made clear that if Japan joined the TPP negotiations, we would all put all products on the table and pursue a high-standard, comprehensive agreement, in line with the TPP vision.

Last month, the TPP ministers agreed to work to conclude the TPP agreement early this year and are working hard toward meeting this goal. I am confident that this can get done.

Representing 40 percent of the world’s GDP, the TPP initiative is important. Once completed, we will see more trade and investment in all directions, and more jobs and higher incomes for all our hard-working people, the future of Japan, the U.S. and the entire world.

Q: How do you assess the progress of Japan’s economic measures called “Abenomics” so far? In the “third arrow” of Abenomics, which basically means structural reform, what specific reform do you expect to see?

A: As an ally and close partner of Japan, the United States welcomes the Abe government’s focus on revitalizing Japan’s economy and achieving sustainable growth. We are pleased that measures taken so far seem to be having a positive effect.

We hope the next stage of the growth strategy will focus on meaningful structural and regulatory reform to facilitate more trade and investment, as well as on reducing barriers to competition and market entry and boosting labor productivity, including providing greater opportunities for women. Of course, concluding a high-standard TPP agreement as soon as possible is another important element.

Q: In the Senate confirmation hearing, you highlighted your extensive background in education and said, “I look forward to building upon those experiences to strengthen the ties between young people in Japan and the United States.”

The immediate challenge that you would face in this regard is the declining number of Japanese students studying in the United States. Your predecessor, Ambassador John Roos, tackled this issue, too. What kind of initiatives or programs can the United States and Japan develop together to reverse this trend and to further strengthen the two countries’ relationship in the area of education?

A: That is such an important question because the U.S.-Japan alliance is built on decades of personal relationships, mutual interests, cultural curiosity and understanding. The challenge is that each generation needs to feel the excitement of learning about another culture in ways that are relevant to that generation.

The U.S. and Japanese governments, educational institutions and companies need to make studying abroad easier and more rewarding for today’s young people. We are already working hard on that. The United States and Japan share a commitment to doubling two-way student and youth exchanges by 2020.

Prime Minister Abe has made educational internationalization a component of his growth strategy, and we are all looking at structural ways to align the academic and job recruiting calendars with study-abroad opportunities.

Fifty years ago, our alliance faced difficult times. One of the responses that President Kennedy and Prime Minister (Hayato) Ikeda came up with was to create CULCON (United States-Japan Conference on Cultural & Educational Interchange), which is still going strong and sponsoring outstanding students in both countries.

After the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, my predecessor, John Roos, heard from the mayor of Rikuzentakata that kids in the Tohoku region needed hope. Building on the success of the military Operation Tomodachi, Ambassador Roos and others worked to create the Tomodachi Initiative, a public-private partnership that sends Japanese high school and college students to the U.S.

Surveys show that Japanese and American students want to study in each other’s countries. We need to make it possible for even more of them to do so.

Q: The Harvard Institute of Politics, which you chair, has the Women’s Initiative in Leadership as one of the main programs. Japan is facing the most serious challenge concerning women’s participation in the workplace and leadership among G-8 countries. As the first female U.S. ambassador to Japan, you are in a very influential position to motivate and inspire the Japanese public on this issue. Do you have any plan or idea to help Japan meet this challenge?

A: There is certainly a lot of excitement in Japan right now around this important issue, and I am very interested in doing what I can to advance the dialogue. Although I understand there are many challenges, I am also hearing success stories from many women. I would like to see what lessons or strategies we can learn from the successes, as well as whether our experience in the United States can prove useful.

My experience in the Harvard Women’s Initiative in Leadership program has taught me the importance of mentoring young women entering the work force, and of family and social support for their success. I understand the Tomodachi Initiative has some mentoring programs, so that’s a good start.

Q: You have also put emphasis on greater female participation in the Japanese labor market. As you noted in your first speech in Tokyo after becoming ambassador, according to the IMF, Japan’s per capita GDP could grow by 4 percent if as many Japanese women worked as in other developed countries. Do you think this is the real key to the success of Abenomics?

A: There is increasing attention internationally on the role of women as a driver of economic growth. This has been true in the United States, and I am encouraged that Prime Minister Abe has made the question of how to support labor-force participation by women an important part of his own agenda. He has told me that empowering women in the workplace is important to Japan’s economy, and I’m eager to hear from him if there are ways we can support him in this goal.

Q: Your tweet regarding the drive dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, drew a lot of attention in Japan. Why did you make that comment?

A: Well, you know, people had been writing to me and tweeting and emailing and calling the United States--calling the embassy here. Hundreds and hundreds of people have been doing this for the last few weeks. And so I thought it was really important to make our policy known, and we have a longstanding policy of protecting these mammals, since 1972, in the United States. And the U.S. government has a policy on this: Drive hunt fisheries are unsustainable and inhumane. So I thought it was important to clarify that and put that out there.

Q: Will you continue to express your views and your own ideas through Twitter, not just on this issue but overall?

A: That’s an important way of communicating, especially with younger people and so, yes, I do plan to continue it.

I have been doing it since I’ve been here, and it’s been interesting because you can have a conversation and a dialogue. … And I know a lot of people have tweeted back at me, both people who agree and people who disagree. So I think that that’s all very healthy.

It’s interesting, of course. That’s how you find out what people are thinking about and what’s important to them. So I think it’s important to do this on a number of different topics, and hopefully I can start a conversation on many important issues.


Caroline Kennedy has been U.S. ambassador to Japan since November 2013. Before taking the post, Kennedy, 56, worked as a lawyer, author and editor. She holds a B.A. degree in Fine Arts from Harvard University and a J.D. degree from Columbia University. She is the daughter of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, and first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

(This interview was conducted by Yoichi Kato, national security correspondent of The Asahi Shimbun and Takeshi Yamawaki, American general bureau chief of The Asahi Shimbun.)

  • 1
submit to reddit
U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun(Semba Satoru)

U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun(Semba Satoru)

  • U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun(Semba Satoru)
  • U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun(Semba Satoru)

More AJW