Caroline Kennedy arrived in Tokyo Friday to take up her official duties as US ambassador, captivating the Japanese people and reassuring the Japanese government of Japan’s enduring importance to the United States.
After a glittery sendoff from Washington steeped in Kennedy lore – Secretary of State John Kerry recalled first meeting President Kennedy’s daughter when she was four years old and about to take a ride on Macaroni, her pony who roamed the White House grounds when the Kennedys resided there – Ambassador Kennedy touched down in a Japan well-prepared for its famous new American envoy.
In October, Japanese television carried Kennedy’s confirmation hearings live, and this week national broadcaster NHK has been running a series of specials on the Kennedy family.
Some Japanese, especially older generations, feel a special attachment to the Kennedys. A young John F. Kennedy was injured in World War II when the torpedo boat he commanded, PT 109, was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. But as president, Mr. Kennedy gave special focus to Japan and was planning to be the first sitting American president to visit the enemy-turned-ally when he was assassinated.
The surviving member of the Kennedy presidential family highlighted this historical link when she landed in Tokyo, noting that because of her father’s plans in particular “it is a special honor for me to be able to work to strengthen the close ties between our two great countries.”
Kennedy, who is expected to present her credentials to Emperor Akihito on Nov. 19, noted that her arrival coincides with “the 50th anniversary of my father’s presidency.” Nov. 22 marks a half-century since President Kennedy’s assassination.
Ambassador Kennedy probably had the Japanese from the moment she opened an introductory video posted on the US Embassy website last week with the famous Kennedy smile and a simple, “Hi, I am Caroline Kennedy.”
But the arrival of a Kennedy – and one close to President Obama to boot – as Washington’s envoy is reassuring Japan that the glory days of the past, when US ambassadors carried prominent and powerful names like Mansfield and Mondale, are back.
Japanese officials have worried in recent years, as Washington has focused increasingly on getting relations right with China, that their country was losing out to other rising Asian powers. At the same time, America’s star had fallen in the eyes of the Japanese people, especially over the presence of 50,000 American troops in the country.
Obama’s “Asia pivot” and the administration’s close coordination with Tokyo over issues ranging from China’s territorial aggressiveness and North Korea have reassured the Japanese government, however.
And then substantial and sustained US assistance to Japan in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan and the related Fukushima nuclear disaster appears to have put the shine back on Japanese perceptions of America, with some recent surveys putting public opinion of the US-Japan alliance at historic highs.
Kennedy, the first female US ambassador to Japan, also arrives as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is focusing on efforts to elevate the stature of Japanese women as part of an over-all campaign to reinvigorate the Japanese economy.
Japan’s ambassador to the US, Kenichiro Sasae, made special note of this at a send-off reception for Kennedy at his Washington residence Wednesday, saying, “The arrival of the first woman ambassador is absolutely great for my country” and is “so timely as Prime Minister Abe seeks to increase the economic and leadership roles of Japanese women.”
In her embassy website video, Kennedy introduces herself to Japan as “an author, educator, and attorney,” but it is probably the accompanying “family” photos – of President Kennedy meeting with Japanese officials, of Ambassador Kennedy on previous trips to Japan – that speak most poignantly to the Japanese people. Kennedy visited Hiroshima with her uncle, the late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, in 1978, and spent part of her honeymoon (with husband Edwin Schlossberg) in Kyoto in 1986.
As Secretary Kerry explained to Ambassador Sasae as they joined in sending Kennedy off to her news duties, “In many ways she’s been an ambassador all her life.”
[Editor's note: The original story incorrectly identified the current emperor of Japan]