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 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT