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Japan abuzz at prospect of Ambassador Caroline Kennedy

Seen as bringing status, star power to Tokyo

Caroline Kennedy spoke during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on her nomination.

AP/file

Caroline Kennedy spoke during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on her nomination.

TOKYO — Caroline Kennedy’s nomination to be America’s next ambassador to Japan has received only modest attention in the United States. She has been relegated to brief reports and the back pages, a loyal Democrat from a storied family who won, despite scant government experience, a plum foreign post.

On this side of the Pacific, however, her pending confirmation is generating intense interest, not just because her political celebrity is perceived to confer high diplomatic status on America’s crucial ally, but also because the remaining glow of Camelot will soon be cast on Japanese shores.

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From newspaper editorials and glossy magazines to public forums and television programs that dissect her every move — including a recent water-skiing outing — Japan’s embrace of President John F. Kennedy’s only surviving child being nominated to the Tokyo post has bordered on glee.

Even commentary that points out the 55-year-old lawyer lacks any diplomatic credentials also lauds her pedigree as American political royalty.

Caroline Kennedy’s family tree was detailed on a Japanese TV program.

TV FUJI

Caroline Kennedy’s family tree was detailed on a Japanese TV program.

“It is delight, really,” said Kunikai Kitai, a correspondent for the Japanese language Jiji Press, describing the reaction here since Kennedy’s name was first floated this summer. “Many Japanese people and politicians see her as equivalent to coming from a royal family like the Japanese emperors. They see the appointment as highlighting the importance of the Japanese-American relationship.”

News accounts also feature what is considered a crucial credential: a personal relationship with President Obama.

Kennedy, 55, was unanimously approved for the post by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this week, when Democrats and Republicans alike extolled her many charitable works and commended her for accepting her first political position. Her confirmation by the full Senate is expected to follow, although no date has been set.

Kennedy’s nomination arrives as Japan is on the upswing. It recently won hosting rights for the 2020 Olympics, and its economy has turned around after emerging from recession last year. Among the Japanese, Kennedy’s nomination is seen as a symbol of Japan’s rising esteem.

“The timing is right for a little glamour,” said Dave Spector, a popular television commentator here, or gaijin tarento — “foreign TV personality.” “It feels right. Japan is back in the game and Caroline Kennedy underscores that.”

The embrace of Kennedy was most recently evident by the fall issue of the Japanese-language magazine Richesse, a glossy publication focusing on high society and lifestyle that is Japan’s equivalent of Town & Country. The cover pictures a young Caroline with her parents, President Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Inside, an article entitled “The New American Ambassador” depicts Caroline looking regal in a ball gown, and displays Kennedy family albums and a picture of Caroline with Obama.

Kennedy is slated to arrive in Tokyo shortly before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, on Nov. 22.

Her father holds a special place in Japanese history.

Although he battled Japan as a Navy patrol boat commander in World War II, he had pledged to be the first American president to visit Japan after the war. His assassination cut short the promise, as Caroline alluded to in her confirmation hearing on Sept. 19. He was able to take the first steps toward codifying the military alliance between the two countries, beginning in 1961 — an important milestone in Japan’s postwar history.

“If confirmed as ambassador, I would be humbled to carry forward his legacy in a small way,’’ she told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “and represent the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies.”

Japanese news coverage also has highlighted Caroline Kennedy’s 1978 visit, along with her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy , to lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Museum, site of one of the two US atomic bomb attacks on Japan during World War II.

Kennedy’s nomination is also considered significant on several other counts. She would be the first woman named to the post, and some Japanese have expressed hope that she would serve as a role model in Japanese culture, where gender bias remains a challenge.

More broadly, the nomination comes as the United States is seeking Japan’s help in building a diplomatic and military buttress against emerging threats in the Pacific region. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel held meetings with their Japanese counterparts on Thursday.

With an eye toward a rising China, a nuclear-armed North Korea, and a series of ongoing territorial disputes with both China and Russia, the two nations issued a communiqué laying out several steps to “strengthen military capabilities that allow our alliance to respond to future global and regional security challenges.”

The United States maintains about 50,000 troops in and around Japan.

One controversial issue Kennedy is likely to confront is a Japanese proposal to modify the country’s constitution to enable its armed forces, designated as a self-defense force following World War II, to take on a more active role in security operations in the region. It would be a shift considered by some of its neighbors, including China and South Korea, as well as US military officials, as potentially destabilizing in light of Japan’s history of militarism in the first half of the 20th century.

Japanese officials highlight Kennedy’s personal ties to Obama — she was an early political supporter — in expressing confidence that their country will have outsized influence in Washington. A questioner at a recent forum attended by State Department officials even asked whether Kennedy’s appointment might be seen as threatening to others in the region, that the United States is playing favorites with Japan.

“She is known to be very close to President Obama,” Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary said recently.

“As US ambassador, one of the most crucial questions is if or how he or she can communicate a variety of issues with the president. For that role, I would give her a big welcome.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at bryan.bender@globe.com.

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