Camelot Comes to Tokyo at an Ideal Moment
"There is no such thing as a glass ceiling; it's just a thick layer of men."
Kathy Matsui, a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economist based in Tokyo, crams this laugh line into every speech she gives about sexism in Japan. All joking aside, Japan has some of the most-impervious barriers for women in the developed world.
Enter Caroline Kennedy, U.S. President Barack Obama's pick as the next U.S. ambassador. If confirmed, the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy would be the first woman to represent the U.S. in Japan, and at a most propitious moment. She would arrive as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pledging to empower women and elevate more of them into leadership roles.
Look, Kennedy, 55, is hardly an ideal role model. For one thing, her knowledge of Japan, is, at best, superficial. For another, as the scion of America’s most-enduring political dynasty, it isn't as if she struggled to get where she is.
That said, having a woman (and a mother of three) play such a high-profile role in Japan will turn heads not only in the halls of Parliament, but the shopping byways of Shibuya.
That isn't the story line you hear from some foreign-policy aficionados. To many, Kennedy is a misguided choice, a cynical move by a White House looking to reward a big fund raiser and early backer of Obama's presidential campaign. Kennedy is a debutante without diplomatic experience. She doesn't know Tokyo. And she's no Edwin Reischauer, ambassador under her father in the 1960s.
Sure, challenges facing U.S.-Japan relations -- including American bases in Okinawa -- and risks such as Japan's territorial disputes with Beijing abound. But in the age of instantaneous communication, it isn't as if ambassadors make big decisions anymore. And for all the hype in the media, Abe and Obama have few major policy disagreements.
Many Japanese couldn’t be happier that a trusted Obama confidante is coming their way. Even better, a famous one (while current Ambassador John Roos has done well, he's not exactly a household name). The thought of Camelot meeting the Chrysanthemum Throne is big news in a nation that's been feeling a bit unappreciated by the West as China hogs the spotlight.
The key is for Kennedy to understand the import of her arrival at what could be a crucial moment in gender dynamics. Kennedy should take every opportunity she gets -- and even create a few -- to inspire women to break through that thick layer of Japanese men.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)