Skip to main content

How Caroline Kennedy could make a difference in Japan

By Shihoko Goto, Special to CNN
updated 8:20 AM EDT, Tue April 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Caroline Kennedy is being vetted for the post of U.S. ambassador to Japan
  • Shihoko Goto says Kennedy could be a strong voice for empowering women
  • Japan is far behind other nations in giving women leadership roles in business, she says
  • Author: Kennedy could emphasize how Japan, U.S. need to move toward gender equity

Editor's note: Shihoko Goto is the Northeast Asia associate for the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Asia Program based in Washington.

(CNN) -- A strong, politically savvy woman is just what Japan and the United States need to strengthen relations on both sides of the Pacific.

Caroline Kennedy, who is in line for the post of U.S. ambassador to Japan, may or may not exactly fit that bill. With any luck, though, she could leverage her appointment as Washington's top envoy to Tokyo to heighten awareness of just how seriously both sides need to take the issue of female leadership.

Not that there is a dearth of other pressing problems at stake.

North Korea's nuclear aspirations show no sign of abating, while worries about tensions in the East China Sea over a handful of barren rocks possibly triggering armed conflict between Japan and China persist. Meanwhile, an arms race is building up in the Asia-Pacific, and the United States needs to strengthen ties with solid allies such as Japan more than ever.

Shihoko Goto
Shihoko Goto

A skillful diplomat should be able to navigate those choppy waters under the leadership of the Obama administration. Where an ambassador can make a real difference in bilateral relations is in highlighting issues that are not necessarily being pushed forward by her bosses at the State Department. For Kennedy, her cause should rightly be unleashing the power of women in Japan and the United States.

Japan is woefully behind most other industrialized countries -- and developing nations alike. According to the World Economic Forum's 2012 gender equity survey, it ranks in 101st place among 135 countries.

The United States, meanwhile, comes in as number 22, and European countries dominate the top tier of the ranking that measures women's economic opportunities, education, health and political empowerment.

More than 60% of Japanese women work, while nearly 70% of their U.S. counterparts are in the workforce. What's particularly worrisome, though, is that while women make up about 15% of upper management and company boards in the United States, they account for about 2% in Japan, according to the consultancy group McKinsey's June 2012 report Women Matter: An Asian Perspective.

That means the United States is hardly a role model when it comes to female leadership, and both Japan and the United States can encourage one another to go beyond simply discussing women joining the workforce.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



What both countries need now is to ensure greater diversity in leadership positions, from the corridors of power to executive board rooms. Certainly in Japan, women are as well-educated as men, but face major obstacles in climbing up the corporate ladder once they get married or after they have children.

Not only does Japan need major policy overhaul to encourage more women to be more ambitious professionally, but there also needs to be a significant shift in mindset to convince women that they can and should strive for economic empowerment.

At 1.39 children per women, Japan's birthrate is one of the lowest in the world. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the population is older than 65, while the number of immigrants in the country remains below 2%, according to the International Organization for Migration. Clearly, that equation does not make for a robust economy.

Pushing for the best and brightest women to be more ambitious, and giving them the opportunity to shine, should be a national priority.

The United States is ahead of Japan when it comes to acknowledging the potential of female corporate and political leaders, but it pales in comparison to Scandinavian countries. Both the United States and Japan have a long way to go to reach gender parity, and both can work together to change the mindset toward female leadership.

As John F. Kennedy's only daughter, Caroline Kennedy's personal experiences hardly resonate with the average woman. Yet she has enjoyed access to some of the world's most powerful and inspiring people since an early age, and she can leverage her position as ambassador to highlight what women in Japan and the United States can aspire.

Kennedy could encourage high-powered women such as Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, to spread a U.S. brand of self-made powerful women who have prospered in places such as Silicon Valley. She could reach out to people such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to talk about her personal struggles in juggling personal ambition and family needs, which will resonate with all women regardless of nationality or economic status.

Kennedy's biggest personal challenge would be to come out of her father's shadow and establish herself as a top diplomat in her own right. Her posting to one of the potentially most explosive regions in the world today highlights Obama's confidence in her leadership potential.

Japan has a very long way to go to for gender equality. The United States does much better, but it could do more as well. Both countries can acknowledge that there is a problem and be open to learning from nations that have encouraged female leadership and success to blossom.

Given Kennedy's high profile, she could shed light on the issue and push for concrete action. And by being humble and acknowledging America's failings in promoting women to leadership positions, Kennedy would avoid the label of trying to impose U.S. values on her host country.

By becoming a champion of female leadership in Japan and the United States, Kennedy could leave a powerful legacy of helping to enhance U.S.-Japan relations.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shihoko Goto.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT