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What Caroline Kennedy Can Expect As Ambassador to Japan

We revisit our earlier piece in light of President Obama’s nomination Thursday.

Photograph courtesy of Tom Schieffer.

On Thursday, President Obama announced his nomination of Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan. Our earlier post, written before the nomination, details what Kennedy might expect while serving in the position.

Recent speculation about whether Caroline Kennedy will be nominated by President Obama to become ambassador to Japan has focused attention on that particular high-profile diplomatic post, especially since it has never before gone to a woman. Still, the list of past ambassadors is impressive and emphasizes strong political and diplomatic skills. John Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer and Obama friend, is the current ambassador. His predecessor was Tom Schieffer, a Texas businessman who had also been ambassador to Australia. Schieffer, the younger brother of CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, served in Tokyo from 2005 to 2009, and though a Democrat he was appointed by a Republican, his friend President George W. Bush.

We checked in with Tom Schieffer on Thursday to find out more about what it means to be ambassador to Japan. He calls it “a great experience” and says he’s “never found anything quite as satisfying as serving your country in a foreign land.” Now based in Fort Worth and running his own company, Envoy International, he considers Tokyo unique in the modern diplomatic corps, because “you are it” and if you are a “substantive person who wants to play a larger role in the American foreign policy, Japan is a good place to do that.” While he would not disclose any inside information about whether Kennedy is in line for the position, he does say he thinks she would be a good choice and one that would be popular with the Japanese.

What’s the learning curve like in switching from a job outside the diplomatic corps and into an ambassador post?

It’s pretty steep, but fortunately you have a lot of people who are very helpful. It’s very interesting, and that’s one thing that makes it fun. You get to talk to a whole lot of people about a whole lot of things. The State Department is very good about that. You go all over the federal government, and they give you briefings and tell you what their particular department is concerned about.

They have “charm school,” a two-week briefing—they bring in eight to ten nominees, both political appointees and career diplomats, and they go through what it means to be an ambassador. They tell you, “This is going to be the most interesting job you’ve ever had in your life.” Anybody who has done it will say at the end that it was.

Do you become involved with a large staff?

The thing about a foreign post—and a lot of people don’t know it—is that there are so many federal agencies present at the post. In Japan there are about 27 federal agencies that have some sort of representative there. It’s very interesting because there’s such a broad range of issues and you’re talking to people who are very smart and about subjects that are intellectually fulfilling.

It’s a place of action. Sometimes people think being an ambassador means going to receptions. You do a lot of that, but it’s the least of what you do. It’s a hard job. I started at 7:30 in the morning and was done at 10 at night, practically seven days a week, because something is always going on.

Why did you leave diplomatic life?

The President appoints, and when presidents change you go.

Would you return?

Sure. It’s a great experience.

What are the central issues in which a US ambassador to Japan would have to be well versed?

The US-Japan Alliance. It is the lynchpin of our whole foreign policy in Northeast Asia and Asia as a whole. It is the thread that runs through the stability of the region. We have 50,000 troops in Japan. That’s more than anywhere else in the world. Everybody depends on those troops being there and the American presence being there.

What you have in Asia is the last place where great powers can reasonably collide—the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula. As dangerous as it is, the day has passed when you would have a superpower confrontation that would lead to war in the Mideast. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have a war in the Mideast, but not between two nuclear powers.

Would the current missile threat in North Korea involve the US ambassador to Japan?

Very much so. North Korea is a serious problem for the United States and Northeast Asia, and Japan is a huge player in how that works out. That underlines the seriousness of the post and why it is a big job.

Does it matter whether the US ambassador has a diplomatic background?

What matters is whether you have access to the President, and that matters all over the world. Japan likes a high-profile ambassador. Mrs. [Kennedy Schlossberg] is high-profile and would be a person who has access to the President. She would be very welcomed by the Japanese government and the Japanese people.

What is it like living there? What are the culture shocks, if any?

Japan is very different. It’s a very formal society, a very ordered society, but the people are pro-American and very appreciative of the relationship between the United States and Japan, and they want it to continue. An American ambassador is an important figure anywhere in the world, but what is different from other posts is that in Japan you’re at another level. You’re basically the successor to MacArthur. It’s a position other ambassadors don’t enjoy. You have immediate access to the government at the highest levels. It’s a very public stage you’re on.

Would it make a difference if the ambassador is a woman?

I don’t think so. There’s not been a woman, and women have not played a role in Japanese politics as men have. That is changing, but it’s still the case. Having a high-profile woman ambassador would be a good thing for everybody.

What lasting impact is there from the Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, and how does that involve the US ambassador?

It’s big. There’s a long tail on that disaster. John Roos did a marvelous job in helping to get assistance and aid up to the region where the tragedy hit. The US military did a magnificent job getting personnel on the ground.

But 33 percent of the power before the earthquake was generated by nuclear plants, and they are shut down, turning them back into a big political issue. What has replaced nuclear power is electricity generated by liquefied natural gas [LNG]. What has happened as a result is that Japan has a trade deficit for the first time in decades, and that has turned things upside down. Japan is heavily in debt. There are fiscal problems in Japan that have to be dealt with. Financing the recovery is a big challenge.

Is there a club of ex-ambassadors?

I think there is. Until you’ve done it, you don’t know how hard it is. I think all of us who have done it appreciate how hard it is, and we all want to help our successors. When I go to Japan, and I frequently do, I see Ambassador Roos, and he’s always very kind. When Howard Baker would come to Japan—he was my predecessor—he would stop by. I’ve become great friends with Walter Mondale and Tom Foley [also former ambassadors to Japan]. American foreign policy as it relates to Japan is very bipartisan. What the Obama administration is trying to do in Japan is what the Bush administration was trying to do in Japan, which is what the Clinton administration was trying to do in Japan—it’s American foreign policy.

Have you ever envied your brother his high-profile television career, or is it the other way around?

Well, no. I have had a great career and he’s had a great career, and we’re very close.

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