Keep Tweeting, Ambassador Kennedy

Japanese lined up by the thousands to watch the horse-drawn carriage with JFK's daughter as she arrived at the Imperial Palace in November to present her ambassadorial credentials to the Emperor.

Now U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy knows how long a honeymoon period in Japan lasts.

Her alleged overstep? The following tweet heard round the political world:

Deeply concerned by inhumanness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG opposes
drive hunt fisheries.

Remove the word "inhumaneness" and I doubt the dolphin tweet would have garnered so
much negative reaction in Japan. But adding it left open a feeling that Kennedy was doing some outside meddling into a local village's fishing tradition or engaging in pot kettle calling. Plus, what human being wants the charge of lacking compassion or consideration for the lives of others, in this case, the dolphins trapped inside the cove?

"Isn't it inhumane to kill millions of cows and sheep for consumption?" said one Japanese tweeter in defense of dolphin cuisine. Regarding that retort, I don't know one Japanese who consumes dolphin, which is widely known for its kawaii (cute) factor and perhaps less known for its high mercury content.

Ambassador Kennedy tweeted about a highly controversial issue revealed in all its gory detail by The Cove film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2009. Dolphin hunting in Japan has severely damaged Japan's image and reputation in the world. Protecting cetaceans is a global rights movement and Japan is in an increasingly isolated corner on this issue.

Ambassador Kennedy was right to raise the issue, controversial or not. Open dissent and debate is exactly what Japan needs more of now, not less, especially as it continues to grapple with Fukushima radiation leaks, Yasukuni Shrine visits, and state secrets laws heading toward the 2020 Olympics.

We need to paint a broader picture here too. Japan is not known for citizens displaying a lot of open criticism and dissent. There's no great payoff to activism and advocacy. You learn early on to go with the flow, not stir the waters, and focus on a work-life balance, with work usually winning. Conflict and controversy are to be avoided like The Big C.

This conflict avoidance is related to the contrast and contradiction in Japanese society between honne (true feelings and opinions) and tatemae (public behavior and opinions). Tatemae and giri (social obligations) always take precedence over honne. This manifests into a society that is quite orderly, ritualistic, reserved, polite, and predictable. It is why I love living in Tokyo. (For more background, see Schumpeter's "The honne and the tatemae" in The Economist.)

Japanese people are often rightly enthusiastic about their Washoku traditional cuisine and culture, which are safe topics for public chatter, but talk about one's personal politics or policy positions is rare. It's similar to my experience living in Beijing, China for a sabbatical semester. One might expect a politics-free dinner table conversation in China, but not in Japan.

This cultural context may help explain why Kennedy's tweet caused such a furor among some Japanese. All was well as long as Kennedy tried out calligraphy, high-fived school children, and practiced some Japanese vocabulary. Celebrating Japan for being Japanese is great when you enthuse over sushi and soba, but tweeting an officialese comment on the Taiji hunt? Well now, lady, that's going too far for some.

One reporter asked me if the dolphin tweet were a "rookie mistake" for the U.S. Ambassador to Japan who has held her post just a few months.

No. A rookie mistake is throwing to the wrong receiver or sliding too early.

Kennedy didn't step out of bounds and she's not a robot when it comes to always towing the line. The U.S. Government does not support this type of dolphin hunting.

Caroline Kennedy should be applauded for raising the profile of the Taiji Cove dolphin hunt killing. Throw in a shout-out to Yoko Ono, who released her own letter to the Japanese fisherman in Taiji, though Ono, a native Japanese, was criticized for not posting the letter in both English and Japanese.

I'm sure the dolphins would respond, "English or Japanese, just save us."

Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, thank you for raising this issue and tweeting your conscience. We call it democratic discourse in Japan and the United States. As Senator J. William Fulbright said, "In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effects."

Dr. Nancy Snow's newest book is Truth is the Best Propaganda: Edward R. Murrow's Speeches in the Kennedy Years. She is completing a book on Japan's image in the world since 3/11.