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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Deepening Bonds

May 12, 2015

The leaders of Japan and the United States have been discussing how to take their relationship into a new era. Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama want to work more closely in the Asia Pacific region on issues such as trade and security. We hear from one of the key figures of this alliance. Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, is the US Ambassador to Japan.

NHK’s senior commentator Aiko Doden sat down with her to talk about where the US-Japan alliance is heading and what we can learn from her father’s legacy.

On a walk through the library of her residence, Ambassador Kennedy points out a picture of her father with a message from him on it.

Doden: What does it say?

Kennedy: “To Caroline with love, Daddy.” He was signing a whole stack of them and I said I wanted one, so he gave one to me.

Kennedy was sworn in as Ambassador in November 2013. Crowds of people lined the streets to welcome her. Many have followed her life story since her father’s time in office. The Kennedy family’s glamor and power captured the imagination of people around the world.

"I'm eager to begin work as Ambassador,” Kennedy said upon inauguration. “It was a wonderful ceremony, and I’m honored to represent my country."

Kennedy said she would focus on cooperation and dialogue to try to strengthen the bond between the US and Japan. Soon after taking her post, she visited areas of northeastern Japan damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

During the visit, Kennedy told the people there, "Until you actually come here, it’s hard to appreciate the enormity of the loss and destruction. I admire your courage and resilience."

The Ambassador also flew to Okinawa. People there have been protesting against the choice of a new site for the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station. Kennedy went to see the situation for herself.

Doden: What is your message to the Japanese people as the US Ambassador based in Japan at this historic time?

Kennedy: A couple of weeks ago I actually had the honor of accompanying Prime Minister Abe and President Obama to the Lincoln Memorial. They were looking at the Gettysburg Address and President Lincoln’s second inaugural, which really talks about reconciliation and going forward after the Civil War. But it talks about charity and forgiveness and the future, and I thought it was such a powerful moment. Then the next day the Prime Minister gave a speech in Congress and talked about an alliance of hope. So I think for me I really saw the 70 years sort of crystallized in those moments. Because I think that we all, our generation and younger generations, have so much to be thankful for, and the sacrifices and also the bravery and the compassion that our fathers, grandfathers, mothers, grandmothers, made to give us this great gift of this friendship and this alliance that we have. So I think it’s something that we shouldn’t take for granted. And as we look forward into the future, I think it’s important for people to realize that it underlines a lot of the prosperity, the quality of life that we enjoy.

Academics and policy makers gathered in Tokyo in March to discuss the legacy of Kennedy’s father. They believed his policies could be used as a template for resolving the challenges of today, over a half-century after President Kennedy’s death.

Former US President Bill Clinton spoke at the event. "John Kennedy actually said he believed that we could have peace for every woman and every man on earth for the whole future. So, that’s a part of his legacy."

John F. Kennedy was president for less than three years. But in that time he had to navigate some major crises. He used diplomatic channels to avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. He went on to sign the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and explore ways to prevent nuclear proliferation. Kennedy also met with leaders of the civil rights movement. He helped them push for an end to racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act was passed one year after his death.

Caroline Kennedy said, "That willingness to face history, to include everyone in the American dream regardless of race, religion, gender, or disability, is a legacy that I’m proud of."

Doden: The world today continues to be confronted by challenges that remind us of the tensions of the Cold War. What should we learn from President Kennedy’s pursuit for peace at the height of the Cold War?

Kennedy: I think that his leadership during the Cold War is a very good example and inspiration for people because the issues seemed so clear, especially when we look back with the perspective of history. But I think the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular showed the importance of trying to find our way forward peacefully through dialogue and diplomacy as a way to solve our disputes. But it’s important to remember that he followed that up with establishing a hotline of communications with Moscow and Washington, and then the first treaty banning nuclear testing. So I think it’s got to be a combination of actions, leadership, and moving forward with the goal of peace.

Doden: Perhaps there is more need on the part of the international community to try and establish a mechanism or a framework to confront those challenges.

Kennedy: The US-Japan alliance isn’t just between the US and Japan, it really works all around the world: humanitarian relief, studying the climate, combating diseases like Ebola, trying to raise up the health systems in developing countries and helping them with their infrastructure. So I think that now we are moving into an area that isn’t two great powers like the Cold War might have been, but is a much more multilateral world.

Doden: President Kennedy in his speech pointed out that if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. Is there a lesson to be learned from President Kennedy in our pursuit to achieve an inclusive society that embraces diversity?

Kennedy: Yeah, I think that you used two very important concepts, diversity and inclusion. I think diversity is really about recognizing and honoring the different contributions that each person can make and the talents each person brings. Then inclusion is how do we bring us all together so that we can move forward and make society better for all people, no matter what their differences may be. One of his most famous speeches talks about making the world safe for diversity, and I think that’s a really important value that he believed in, that each one of us has something to contribute, that we need to honor all different kinds of people.

Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya spoke with Aiko Doden in the studio about her meeting with Caroline Kennedy.

Beppu: We heard about JFK’s Cold War achievements. But I think he left a mixed legacy, didn’t he? For example when it comes to the US war in Vietnam, it is known that he initially increased the US military role there. Also when it comes to civil rights, it is said that, well initially he was sort of cautious or reluctant to promote those rights. Despite that, why do you think many people are still fascinated by him more than 50 years after his death?

Doden: Perhaps he reflects that one key moment in global history. World War 2 was over but the Cold War was raging. People were wondering what kind of future they could leave for the next generation. It is true that he has a mixed legacy, but we can credit him with some major accomplishments. He navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. And he did push for a civil rights bill that would eventually end racial segregation, though it didn’t materialize in his lifetime.

He also created the Peace Corps, and inspired young people to take part. He wasn’t just a political figurehead; he was a leader, an inspirational figure perhaps, who called upon people to play an active role in building their own future.

Shibuya: Moving on to Caroline Kennedy, when she became Ambassador to Japan, she said she would champion women’s rights. Has she done much on that front?

Doden: It was quite encouraging when she said that, wasn’t it? And she has. She’s done so in the context of promoting diversity, rather than just looking to women as a way to boost the economy by having them join the labor force. Kennedy has been a strong supporter of promoting women’s role in society and she’s spoken about it at many events in Tokyo, including recently when US First Lady Michelle Obama visited Japan. As her father said, diversity is about honoring differences. And it’s worth noting that the Ambassador ended this interview by speaking about the importance of creating a society that is both inclusive and diverse.

Beppu: What’s the Ambassador’s view on the US-Japan alliance, the future of it? We know that the leaders of the two countries recently agreed to draft new security guidelines?

Doden: She didn’t quite go into the details of the security arrangement. But she sees it evolving and strengthening. I think it’s significant that she started by referring to Abraham Lincoln’s historic speech on reconciliation after the Civil War, and then went straight on to Shinzo Abe’s speech to the US Congress late last month. Although the US and Japan were at war with each other some 70 years ago, she says the two countries produced a strong bond of friendship and set an example for the rest of the world. She said the friendship, the alliance, was a “gift”.

And it’s not just about security arrangements or trade frameworks. The alliance embraces broader issues of common interest. These include providing humanitarian aid, making sure children have access to education, promoting women’s empowerment in the developing world and so forth. It’s a strong alliance because the countries share core values, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And as Kennedy said, in this world where conflicts and natural disasters are occurring all the time, the US-Japan alliance is no longer just about two countries. Its impact is felt all around the world.