TOKYO (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — Caroline Kennedy arrived in Japan on Friday to take up her position as U.S. ambassador with one important strength: She has the ear of the American president.
Her close ties to Obama come from playing a pivotal role during the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008 by endorsing him when Hillary Clinton was the lead candidate. "What's important here is her strong pipeline with Obama and an ability to be able to pick up the phone and speak with Obama directly in the middle of the night for consultation on urgent matters," said Ryuichi Teshima, professor of diplomacy at Keio University in Tokyo.
As the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan, Kennedy may also be a role model in a country that traditionally has restricted the role of women, said Toshihiro Nakayama, professor of international politics at Aoyama Gakuin University.
"I am also proud to carry forward my father's legacy of public service," Kennedy said. "He had hoped to be the first U.S. president to visit Japan. So it is a special honor for me to be able to work to strengthen the close ties between our two great countries."
U.S.-Japan relations are generally on an even keel, but Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are not as close as some would like. "The chemistry is off, possibly because Obama does not support the right-wing views Abe holds," Teshima said.
Major bilateral issues include the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, the relocation of a U.S. military base on Okinawa and a revamp of defense cooperation guidelines between the two countries. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the warm welcome Kennedy received on arrival in Tokyo "is a wonderful display of the strong relationship between the United States and Japan."
Asked about Kennedy's lack of diplomatic experience, Psaki told reporters: "I think she's displayed her commitment to working closely with Japan and working through all of the issues that we work together on. And she comes from a long line of public service. And we have no doubt she'll do an incredible job on the ground there."
U.S. ambassadors to Japan can be grouped into three categories, Nakayama said. They are big political names, Japan experts and those with close ties to the president. Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and former Senator Mike Mansfield fall into the first type. Edwin Reischauer, President Kennedy's envoy, would be the second.
Nakayama puts Caroline Kennedy, an attorney and author, in the third group, along with her predecessor, John Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer and Obama fundraiser, and Tom Schieffer, who was George W. Bush's business partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.