The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Robert F. Kennedy stood on the stage of Waseda University’s Okuma Auditorium and looked out on an audience erupting in chaos.

It was February 6, 1962, and President John F. Kennedy’s younger brother—also the attorney general and JFK’s trusted adviser—had been dispatched to Tokyo to smooth over US–Japan relations, at a time when anti-US sentiments were running high.

His mission encompassed laying the groundwork for the president’s much-anticipated trip to Japan in 1964, which would have been the first visit by a sitting US president.

The gathering crowd was tense and unruly; the younger Kennedy had been advised by the CIA not to go at all. As Dartmouth College scholar Jennifer Lind describes it, pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese groups shouted at Kennedy, whose supporters yelled back. Chairs were thrown.

Remaining calm, the attorney general invited a particularly vocal student onto the stage to engage in discussion, reaching down into the audience to help him up. That, he said, was the democratic way. At one point, addressing the crowd on a bullhorn, he spoke about the importance of dialogue.

Kennedy’s behavior won over both the students and Japanese television viewers. His visit proved to be a turning point in US–Japan relations.


President Kennedy (front left) meets with Prime Minister of Japan Hayato Ikeda (seated) and other officials on June 20, 1961.

Peace and prosperity
Fast forward to March 18, 2015. On the same Waseda stage, US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy—JFK’s daughter—addressed a full house.

She spoke to a far more polite audience about her father’s wartime experiences, including the sinking of his U.S. Navy patrol boat by a Japanese destroyer, and his travels to Japan and other Asian destinations while serving as a congressman.

The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s first international symposium on JFK, titled “The Torch Has Been Passed: JFK’s Legacy Today,” celebrated the ideals the president had championed—public service, global citizenship, diplomacy, inclusion, as well as science and innovation—and examined how they could address critical problems facing the world today.

“He understood the importance of the US–Japan alliance for future peace and prosperity in Asia, and he was determined to improve relations,” the ambassador said.

Joining her to pay tribute was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who called JFK’s courage and grace under pressure an inspiration to the Japanese people.

“We in Japan saw what leadership was in this young and vigorous president. I think that remains engraved in our mind’s eye even today,” reads the English translation of Abe’s remarks.

“What resonates in our mind’s ear is JFK’s voice. It was September 1962 when he said, in that slightly high-pitched yet deeply penetrating voice, ‘We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade . . . not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard.’”

President Kennedy’s belief in the power to dream inspired Japan at a time when it was preparing to reemerge on the global stage, by hosting the 1964 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Abe noted.

“It was in 1963 that Japan became a full member of [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade], and the following year, 1964, when Japan became a full-fledged member of the [International Monetary Fund (IMF)] and the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. That same year, Tokyo hosted the IMF–World Bank annual meetings just before the Olympics got underway.

“These [agreements] symbolize the post-war resurgence of the Japanese economy and the fact that Japan chose to join the free and democratic camp. Not a single one of these would have come to fruition without the leadership of JFK.”

Japan also was inspired by Kennedy’s stand against racial prejudice. “Let us, both the United States and Japan, cultivate the ability to dream, as well as reinforce our determination to stamp out discrimination and respect human rights,” Abe said.

“Let us together make the world a better place, if only one step at a time. I believe that is the road to properly reciprocating the legacy that JFK left us.”

New frontiers


JFK (right) was a pioneer in calling for space exploration for the good of mankind.

At a panel discussion titled “The New Frontier: Innovation, Inspiration and Inclusion,” Koichi Wakata, an astronaut with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, recalled watching a live television broadcast of the first manned mission landing on the moon. JFK’s call to explore space inspired future astronauts around the world to collaborate for the good of mankind.

“This was all possible because of the seed that President Kennedy planted a long time ago, which has blossomed in this international manner,” Wakata said.

“It’s our responsibility to expand our frontier further . . . eventually to Mars. As President Kennedy set the challenge, that’s how we grow as a society. Unless you have a difficult challenge to overcome, you don’t get there.

By doing this in an internationally cooperative manner, we will get over the difficulty and expand our knowledge, eventually making our world more peaceful and enriching and protecting our society.”

At a panel discussion titled “A Strategy of Peace: Crisis Diplomacy and Non-Proliferation,” moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball noted that, since JFK, US presidents from both the Democratic and Republican parties have consistently appointed top-notch ambassadors to Japan.

That list includes Edwin Reischauer (1961–66); Mike Mansfield (1977–88); Walter Mondale (1993–96); Thomas Foley (1997–2001); Howard Baker Jr. (2001–05); and Caroline Kennedy (2013~ ).

“The Japan–US alliance is highly valued,” said panelist Fumiaki Kubo, professor of American Government and History at The University of Tokyo.

In his keynote address, former President Bill Clinton said he was just 16 years old and part of a United Nations youth delegation when he met JFK in 1963.

Kennedy told the young delegates that their opinions mattered and encouraged them to become involved in public life, which served as a key motivator of Clinton’s political ambitions. He also highlighted JFK’s creation of the Peace Corps as part of his vast international legacy.

“President Kennedy’s emphasis on service inspired a generation to change the way they think about their own lives,” Clinton said. “He said to us that, without regard to our differences in income, abilities, knowledge, or available time, everybody can give back—and should.”

The National Archives of Japan is curating a special exhibition, JFK: His Life and Legacy, that includes film, photos, and artifacts.

Through May 10, seven days a week

Photos courtesy of JFK Library Foundation


Tom Benner is a Singapore-based journalist writing for Al Jazeera English and Nikkei Asian Review, among other outlets.