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Caroline Kennedy on why this is a critical time for U.S. and Japan

July 24, 2014 at 6:37 PM EDT
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy was greeted warmly when she arrived in Tokyo last year. But the region, overshadowed by conflicts in the rest of the world, is facing troubles. Gwen Ifill sat down with Kennedy to discuss ongoing territorial disputes with China, the status of the President Obama’s pivot to Asia and the existential threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to my interview with the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

While conflicts in the Mideast and Ukraine have dominated the headlines, Japan has been coping with its own.

Caroline Kennedy was greeted warmly when she arrived in Tokyo last year. But the region, overshadowed by conflicts in the rest of the world, is a troubled one. At sea, Japan, Russia and China continue to feud over who controls islands they have fought over since World War II.

Kennedy ruffled diplomatic feathers early on when she suggested that an annual traditional dolphin hunt was inhumane. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came under fire from the U.S. and others for paying tribute at a shrine to Japanese war dead that Koreans and Chinese consider offensive.

But as Abe pushes for structural and constitutional reforms, the U.S. is offering its support, especially for a plan to allow Japan’s military to expand its role beyond self-defense.

SHINZO ABE, Prime Minister, Japan (through interpreter): I have the heavy responsibility as the prime minister to protect the livelihoods of our citizens. Taking that into account, this cabinet resolution will help to begin preparations for laying the framework of a new security legislation.

GWEN IFILL: Abe’s plan has not been popular among the Japanese, who fear they will be drawn into other nation’s conflicts. President Obama visited Japan in April, stressing that he has not abandoned the so-called pivot to Asia he promised early in his presidency.

Left on the front lines of that pivot is the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. I spoke with her earlier today at the State Department.

Welcome, Ambassador Kennedy.

CAROLINE KENNEDY, U.S. Ambassador to Japan: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: When you first arrived in Japan, you were greeted by throngs of people cheering you in the streets. Has that died down?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Yes.

Actually, I wasn’t expecting it, but I think it was an incredibly moving kind of tribute to the place that America holds in the Japanese hearts.

GWEN IFILL: You said at the time that when you — you were arriving in Japan at a critical time in history for both countries. What are the critical issues that face you right now?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, I think it’s hard to really appreciate fully here at home, when there’s so much going on in the rest of the world as well, how important Japan is as an ally of the United States.

And pretty much everything we do around the world, Japan is really one of our closest, if not our closest, partner. And that includes our economic relationship, our political and security relationship. Asia represents 40 percent of the world’s GDP, so this is a region that is critical to America’s future.

And we need allies and partners, and Japan is really our number one. They’re a democracy. They’re the world’s number three economy. They are absolutely committed to the U.S./Japan alliance. And we do all kinds of other things, like monitor climate change and greenhouse gases with them, scientific exploration, and student exchange.

So it’s really across the board. So there are complicated issues right now, but there are also these longstanding kind of relationships that I think are so important for the United States to build on.

GWEN IFILL: I want to get back to those complicated issues right now, but you mentioned first that there’s so much else going on in the world. We are preoccupied with what’s happening in the Middle East, what’s happening in Ukraine. I can name a half-a-dozen other hot spots before I even get to Japan.

CAROLINE KENNEDY: That’s good.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Well, whatever happened to the big Asia pivot, the transpacific partnership?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: The Asia pivot, rebalance I think is really how people see it, is absolutely happening, and I think that it’s having a major impact on the region.

The president’s visit was so important, and he visited our treaty partners Japan and Korea, who are two of our strongest allies in the world, as well as the Philippines and Malaysia, announced new agreements with the Philippines.

So I think that the U.S. presence in Asia is one of the reasons why it is so stable and prosperous. And that’s been true for the last 50 years, and it’s because people have worked at this.

GWEN IFILL: In Japan, if there is any nervousness in the region, it’s about China and it is about North Korea. Let’s just talk about China first and the territorial disputes involved in the islands there. Where does that stand today?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, I think, as you point out, it’s increasingly tense, and I think that — but there’s an effort being made, especially by Japan, to really open channels of communication, to set sort of safe maritime security practices, to resist the kind of destabilizing attempts to change the status quo.

So I think that Japan would like to have a hot line with China. They are really taking this very seriously. They train. They approach this very responsibly. They debate this. They’re very transparent with other countries in the region, so I think that everybody is really looking to Japan to be a helpful, solid leader on these issues.

GWEN IFILL: But still a fair amount of tension with the idea that China is on the rise.

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, China is certainly on the rise, but I think that China benefits a great deal from the U.S./Japan alliance. It’s one of the things that’s kept the region peaceful and prosperous and allowed their economy to grow.

GWEN IFILL: Japan agreed to turn over its weapons-grade plutonium, something the U.S. really wanted them to do, yet North Korea, nuclear-armed North Korea, still looms.

How do you justify their cooperation when they have such an existential threat so close to them?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, I think Japan is as committed as we are to denuclearizing North Korea.

This is a threat to all countries, and I think that we all work very closely to eliminate the North Korea nuclear threat.

GWEN IFILL: Are their conversations under way with South Korea or with other nations in the region about how to do that?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Oh, constantly.

It’s something that our government takes incredibly seriously. The Japanese government takes it equally seriously, and as do the South Koreans. So, this is something that is really front and center in the region, is the provocative and just — and dangerous behavior of the North Koreans.

GWEN IFILL: How are the concerns about what’s happening in the Middle East especially, and in Ukraine, and in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, and in Iran, how does that play out in Japan? Is that something which people are watching with a wary eye or is it something that just seems terribly far away?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: This is something that the Japanese are watching very, very carefully.

And, obviously, they have said they are with us on sanctions. They are with us. They are part of the G7. This is something that they are taking very seriously. And they are partners with us in a much broader way. They are partners with us in development, in humanitarian assistance in the Middle East, in Syria, in the Ukraine. They have just contributed. They are the number one donor to Afghanistan after us.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that Prime Minister Abe has been trying to do is to change the constitution to allow Japan to take better part or greater — play a greater role in these multinational efforts in these regions we’re talking about.

Right now, the constitution allows only for self-defense. Japanese people have not reacted very well to that, even though the U.S. has encouraged it.

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, I think it’s going to allow them to participate in peacekeeping, and to help the United States, and so — and to protect the United States when we’re doing joint operations.

And so I think it’s something that’s a big change. The rhetoric, it’s a very complicated and confusing issue. It’s going to be legislation and it’s going to be fully debated. The initial debate happened in the spring, but there are going to be much more extensive debates. And I think that’s one of the things that we should all look to, is this is a democratic society who is going to debate this fully.

GWEN IFILL: Are you necessarily on the sidelines in that kind of debate?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, this is a Japanese issue for the Japanese people.

GWEN IFILL: As a woman ambassador, one of your goals in arriving in Japan was to raise the status or address the status of women as professionals and equal parts of the economy in Japan. Have you been able to do that?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, I think the prime minister has really put this front and center.

And there’s a national debate going on in Japan right now about this, and I think the business community, as well as the Japanese public, sees this as an economic issue for their future. And empowering women is absolutely critical for the Japanese future.

And so I think it’s a really exciting time to be the first woman American ambassador, because there’s so much debate, there’s so many proposals, there’s so much going on, and there’s so much — there are so many talented women there, so it’s going to be great.

GWEN IFILL: Has your celebrity and every — all that comes with that, has it been a help or a hindrance, as ambassador?

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Well, I think people have been incredibly welcoming, and I think it’s really been also very moving for me to see how much they admire America, but also President Kennedy and the ideals of public service and patriotism that he stood for.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, thank you very much.

CAROLINE KENNEDY: Thank you.