The rumor mills in Washington and Tokyo are alive these days with speculation that President Obama will nominate Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, to be the next American ambassador to Japan.

Curiously, the prospective nomination has been mildly controversial, with critics arguing that Ms. Kennedy has had little diplomatic experience and has no particular knowledge of Japan nor of the issues in U.S. security and economic relations with Tokyo.

Her defenders, who contend that an ambassador’s political connections in Washington are critical, point out that Ms. Kennedy is well known to the president, having held senior positions in his election campaigns. She is also well known to Secretary of State John Kerry, the former senator from Massachusetts, the Kennedy clan’s political base.

Perhaps most of all, the Kennedy name is magic in Japan.

Many people recall that her father was skipper of the PT-109 patrol boat that was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II. But after the war Kennedy was reconciled with the Japanese who had almost killed him.

During a trip to Japan as a congressman, John Kennedy enlisted the help of a Japanese scholar, Gunji Hosono, to find and meet with Kohei Hanami, captain of the destroyer Amagiri. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the outpouring of grief in Japan almost equaled that in America.

Attorney General and later Sen. Robert Kennedy added to his family’s luster during visits to Japan before and after his brother’s assassination. During a public address at Waseda University in 1962, Bobby Kennedy calmly faced down a leftist heckler to the cheering approval of several thousand students.

If Caroline Kennedy is confirmed by the Senate, she will be the first U.S. ambassador to Japan who is a woman. This in a male-dominated nation that has seen women slowly but steadily rising in politics, business, academia, and journalism.

Moreover, she will take up her post in Tokyo as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to stimulate Japan’s economic and political vitality. The coalition led by his Liberal Democratic Party took solid control of the National Diet in Sunday’s upper house elections. In the coming months, he is expected to propose far-reaching reforms.

Over the last 50 years, America has been represented in Tokyo by an array of 12 very different envoys. Among the best were a prominent scholar, Edwin O. Reischauer (1961-66), an historian at Harvard, and a leading business executive, Robert Ingersoll (1972-73) of Borg Warner International in Chicago.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, Reischauer and Ingersoll each had a natural flair for diplomacy. Reischauer wrapped himself in the mantle of “sensei,” or teacher, and mounted a virtual pedestal to deliver policy pronouncements. Ingersoll, an affable Midwesterner, had an easy entré into Tokyo’s powerful business community.

Two ambassadors have been cronies of the president. President George W. Bush appointed Thomas Schieffer (2005-09), a partner in owning the Texas Rangers baseball team, while President Obama named John Roos (2009-13), a Silicon Valley lawyer and fund raiser in California.

Three were professional diplomats, U. Alexis Johnson (1966-69), Armin Meyer (1969-72), and Michael Armacost (1989-93). Johnson and Armacost were traditional diplomats operating behind-the-scenes with contacts in the Foreign Ministry and other agencies. Meyer, whose experience had been in the Middle East, was miscast in Japan.

Five have been political leaders who appealed to the Japanese yearning for “big names” — Secretary of Labor James Hodgson (1974-77), Senate Majority Leader Michael Mansfield (1977-88), Vice President Walter Mondale (1993-96), Speaker of the House Thomas Foley (1997-01), and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (2001-05).

All had superb political connections in Washington on which they relied for support for their policies in Tokyo. And they learned what they needed to know about Japanese politics and culture from the “Japan hands” who were their deputy chiefs of mission, or DCMs, appointed from the ranks of the State Department.

All 16 of those DCMs had served in Japan earlier in their careers, most for several years, and spoke and read varying degrees of Japanese. One DCM’s wife spoke Japanese so well that she was welcomed into the Tokyo literary community. Another DCM was married to the daughter of a former prime minister.

All of this suggests that the selection of a DCM for Ambassador Kennedy will be just as important as her own nomination. For that diplomat, it will be a plum assignment as nine predecessors have gone on to become ambassadors in their own right.

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About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth