U.S.-Japan Relations: Not So Sweet Caroline

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U.S.-Japan Relations: Not So Sweet Caroline

After a rapturous welcome, Japanese enthusiasm for Ambassador Caroline Kennedy has cooled noticeably.

U.S.-Japan Relations: Not So Sweet Caroline
Credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato

In a November 2013 op-ed for Singapore’s Straits Times (“Kennedy Magic and US-Japan Relations”), I wrote about the national frenzy that greeted the arrival in Japan of Caroline Kennedy, the new U.S. ambassador.

Besides the worldwide “Kennedy magic,” the Japanese have particular reason to harbor special feelings for the Kennedys. On that fateful day of November 22, 1963, Japanese were glued to their television sets anticipating a happy event: the inauguration of the first-ever live satellite transmission from the United States. When those much-anticipated first images finally appeared on the screen, they were conveying the breaking news of the assassination of the U.S. president. Imagine the shock felt by millions of Japanese TV viewers.

Fifty years later and only three days to the tragic anniversary, euphoric crowds lined the streets of Tokyo to watch JFK’s daughter ride in a Victorian-style horse-drawn carriage on her way to the Imperial Palace to present her credentials to the Emperor. Some in the ecstatic thousand-strong crowd could be heard happily chanting “Sweet Caroline,” in reference to the song dedicated to her in 1969 by Neil Diamond.

The media left no stone unturned in its efforts to play up the national joy in welcoming “America’s princess” to Japan. The press marveled at Kennedy’s quoting of an ancient Japanese poet, Basho, and promptly portrayed her as an expert on Japanese culture. Her two previous personal visits to Japan were repeatedly mentioned as proof of her “particular love” for the country. And the fact that her late father once expressed a desire to visit Japan was seen as a fateful link between the Kennedys and the land of Rising Sun.

Across the political spectrum in Japan, the appointment of Ambassador Kennedy was acclaimed as a flattering gift from President Barack Obama and confirmation of how much Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was appreciated by America. This sign of renewed appreciation from Uncle Sam was badly needed after a year during which nationalist Abe’s Japan was beginning to feel that America, its closest ally, was shifting its Asian interests—and affection—away from Japan towards China.

Overwhelmed by their excitement and in a bizarre show of ignorance of the role of a foreign ambassador, some in Tokyo’s inner circle of power, according to a columnist writing in the December 30 edition of the magazine Agora, even naively planned to exploit the worldwide fame of “Princess Kennedy” to advance Abe’s diplomatic agenda, as if a U.S. ambassador was there to serve Japanese interests.

Amidst all the rejoicing, only a handful of observers, including myself in that November Straits Times piece, realized that given the distinctly left-leaning politics that characterizes both the Kennedy clan and Obama himself, the appointment of Caroline Kennedy, already known for her liberal viewpoints, was hardly a gift to the right-wing nationalists holding power in Tokyo.

My prediction of a clash between the new U.S. ambassador and the right-wing Japanese political establishment drew sneers from more than a few Japanese friends, who laughed at my “ignorance” of the long and warm postwar friendship and rock-solid alliance between the two countries, especially with a Japanese premier known for his staunch commitment to the alliance.

Yet merely four months after Kennedy’s enthusiastic welcome to Japan, not only has fervor cooled, the ambassador seems to have become a target for angry supporters of Abe’s nationalist agenda.

So what happened to the “Kennedy magic?”

In fact, less than two months after arriving in Japan, Kennedy stunned her new friends by declaring a diplomatically unprecedented “disappointment” at Abe’s December 26 visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

The visit of the Japanese premier to a shrine worshipping Japanese war criminals alongside other war dead upset not only the usual critics such as China and South Korea, but also, for the first time, the U.S. It also drew criticism from other countries usually mum on the issue, leaving Japan feeling marginalized.

Although not an especially strong word by the standards of international diplomacy, Kennedy’s “disappointment” took many Japanese by surprise; nobody had expected such a negative reaction from the ambassador of Japan’s closest ally, especially an envoy everyone had assumed would be unconditionally Japan-friendly. The surprise was all the stronger because the U.S. had hitherto shown no particular interest in the controversy over Yasukuni Shrine.

What her erstwhile fans had failed to see was that Kennedy’s stance on Abe’s Yasukuni visit was not just personal. Confirmed as the official U.S. position, her “disappointment” echoed the simmering frustration that Washington has been feeling this past year towards the hawkish Japanese leader. The U.S. administration, Congress and the mainstream U.S. media have all found reason to be unhappy at the revisionist Abe’s “unnecessary nationalism” and the “provocative moves” that are seen as aggravating already tense ties with China and South Korea.

America, which badly needs stability in East Asia and a solid U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance in order to face an assertive—but indispensible—China and an unpredictable North Korea, has been disturbed by the worsening tensions between Japan and its two neighbors under Abe’s watch. Although Japan may not be the only party to blame in these quarrels, Washington is increasingly irritated by what it sees as Abe’s unhelpful flexing of nationalism that has served only to aggravate an already precarious situation in Asia.

Those provocations culminated in Abe’s determination to visit Yasukuni, despite repeated U.S. attempts, conducted at levels as high as Vice President Joe Biden, to dissuade him. Besides further angering the neighbors, the controversial visit, coming just two weeks after Abe had met with Biden, deeply embarrassed Washington by showing the world that the U.S. could not hold back its ally. It is in this context that the unprecedented U.S. “disappointment” was officially expressed.

In January, Kennedy stirred further consternation across Japan by condemning the “inhumaneness” of the Japanese practice of dolphin hunting. Coming after the Yasukuni Shrine controversy, many Japanese of all stripes interpreted this as another undiplomatic interference in what they see as part of their culture.

In February, the ambassador made news again by having her embassy condemn the jingoistic statements made by the new governors of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, taking particular issue at the words of Naoki Hyakuta, an ultraconservative writer who had been newly appointed by Abe. In a clear violation of NHK’s obligation to remain politically neutral, Hyakuta publicly denied that the Rape of Nanjing (during which Chinese civilians were massacred by invading Japanese soldiers) had ever happened and, adding insult to injury, accused America of covering up its own genocide of Japanese civilians in wartime air raids and in atomic bombings by prosecuting defeated Japanese leaders as war criminals at the notorious Tokyo Tribunal.

Showing her disgust, Kennedy is said to have initially refused an interview request by NHK. When she finally granted the interview in March, it was only to re-affirm her condemnation of Abe’s Yasukuni visit and of Hyakuta’s views, prompting another burst of anger from the Japanese right. Kennedy’s initial snubbing of the most influential media outlet in Japan was an unmistakable sign of the troubles surfacing in Japan’s relations with America.

While it has finally dawned on most Japanese commentators that all is not well in the sacrosanct Japan-U.S. relationship, Abe’s entourage has attempted the unthinkable by talking back to America and voicing their own “disappointment” at the U.S. ally’s attitude. A close aide of the premier, Koichi Hagiuda, went so far as to declare that bilateral ties were better when a Republican was in the White House, managing to both insult the incumbent Democrat and ignore the fact that a number of conservative U.S. Republicans share the irritation at Japan’s neo-revisionism.

Meanwhile, media outlets in Japan, which back in November were praising Kennedy’s qualities as well as her love for and knowledge on Japan, are now concentrating their flak at “the self-indulgent Princess Kennedy” who, they say, is ruining U.S.-Japan ties with her “ignorance,” her “caprices,” her “incompetence” and her “leftist views.” Populist Japanese media are also lashing out, even less elegantly, reciting all the personal shortcomings and vices they can find in the lady they welcomed so enthusiastically only four months ago.

Despite these attacks, Kennedy still draws large crowds at her public appearances in Japan. Still, as Obama’s visit rapidly approaches, nobody is singing “Sweet Caroline” anymore.

Yo-jung Chen is a retired French diplomat. Born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, he has served in French diplomatic missions in Japan, the U.S., Singapore and China.