TOKYO (USA TODAY)- As if the Japanese don't have enough problems, now they're being dissed by their favorite new ambassador - via Twitter, no less.
In office just two months, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy took to social media this weekend to condemn an annual dolphin hunt in western Japan portrayed by opponents as needlessly cruel.
"Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG opposes drive hunt fisheries," Kennedy tweeted in both English and Japanese. "USG" refers to the U.S. government.
The message seemed to catch both officials and public here by surprise. Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga defended the dolphin hunt at a regular press conference Monday as "in accordance with the law."
But Japanese social media were less circumspect.
"The drive hunt is a traditional fishery that was established long before the foundation of the United States of America," said one message posted in response. "Isn't it inhumane to kill millions of cows and sheep for consumption?" asked another.
The Taiji hunt, in which hundreds of dolphins are driven into a small cove and killed, was the subject of a graphic documentary in 2009 that won an Academy Award.
Kennedy's dolphin tweet could complicate relations between two vital allies, says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University of Japan, in Tokyo.
"There are far more important questions between the U.S. and Japan. The key to the dolphin business is getting Japanese to oppose it. But will this help? Or on the contrary, will it start a nationalistic reaction against meddling by a (foreign) country," says Dujarric.
Japan Dolphin Hunt
Fishermen drive bottle-nose dolphins into a net during their annual hunt off Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, western Japan.(Photo: AP/Kyodo News)
Kennedy's appointment in November was widely hailed in Japan as a sign of the special relationship between the two countries. Kennedy is the daughter of former president John F. Kennedy and a longtime supporter of President Obama; thousands turned out when she arrived at the Imperial Palace in a horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to the Emperor.
Kennedy has remained largely popular, visiting the region devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and regularly tweeting news and photos from family trips around the country. Her Twitter account has more than 70,000 followers.
Critics of Kennedy's appointment pointed to her lack of government experience and Japan's crucial role in the U.S. "rebalance" to Asia. Japan is embroiled in tense disputes with neighboring China and South Korea over territorial claims and historical issues, and conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for major changes to Japan's pacifist constitution.
But Kennedy seemed to show resolve last month when the U.S. Embassy issued an unusually strong official statement expressing "disappointment" over Abe's visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.
A State Department official who asked not to be named because of department policy, said Kennedy proposed issuing last week's Twitter statement on the ongoing dolphin hunt in Taiji in response to social media criticism of the event. The final wording of her tweet was the result of collaboration between Kennedy and other embassy officials and reflects official U.S. policy, the official said.
That's all good, says Nancy Snow, a visiting professor of mass communications at Keio University, in Tokyo.
"I salute her for generating discussion on this issue," Snow said in an e-mail Tuesday. "Of course, some Japanese in the so-called Twitter-verse are going to be displeased. Too bad. We call it democratic representation. 'CK' doesn't have to agree with every Japanese position. She's there to represent the U.S. position."