New U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy smiles as she gives a statement upon her arrival in Japan at the Narita International Airport Friday. / Koji Sasahara, AP
TOKYO - Caroline Kennedy arrived in Japan on Friday to take up her position as U.S. ambassador, the first woman to serve in the post and one who is from a political family familiar to many here.
"I bring greetings from President Obama," she said in after getting off the plane with her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, at Narita airport.
"I am also proud to carry forward my father's legacy of public service," said the 55-year-old daughter of late President John F. Kennedy. "He had hoped to be the first U.S. president to visit Japan. So it is a special honor for me to be able to work to strengthen the close ties between our two great countries."
Kennedy's appointment is being widely acclaimed here. As the daughter of the late president and an early supporter of President Obama, her selection is seen as reassurance of the special relationship between the two countries.
"There is great excitement and anticipation here, especially among people who remember her father," says Nancy Snow, a visiting professor of mass communications at Keio University, in Tokyo. "There's so much mythology about that time, and she's the sole survivor. It's almost a passing of the torch."
Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, adding poignancy to what the Japanese already view as a close bond with the Kennedy family.
JFK was injured when his PT 109 was sunk by a Japanese destroyer during World War II. But he maintained a cordial correspondence with the ship's captain in later years, and had planned to be the first president to visit Japan in the post-war era.
Indeed, an advance team from the White House was in Tokyo planning for the visit when Kennedy was killed in Dallas.
Caroline Kennedy visited Hiroshima with her uncle, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, in the late 1970s. She said she was "deeply affected" by the experience. She spent part of her honeymoon in Kyoto and Nara after marrying designer Schlossberg in 1986.
In a video posted on the U.S. Embassy website this week, Kennedy embraced her family legacy.
"This appointment has a special significance as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of my father's presidency," she said. "I would be humbled to carry forward his legacy in a small way and represent the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies."
Japan's embrace of Kennedy is not all sentiment. She is seen as having particular clout within the administration.
"We welcome her selection because we understand that she is extremely close to the president," said Yoshihide Suga, the senior government spokesman and a close adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, shortly after Kennedy's nomination in July.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the warm welcome Kennedy received on arrival in Tokyo "is a wonderful display of the strong relationship between the United States and Japan."
Asked about Kennedy's lack of diplomatic experience, Psaki told reporters: "I think she's displayed her commitment to working closely with Japan and working through all of the issues that we work together on. And she comes from a long line of public service. And we have no doubt she'll do an incredible job on the ground there."
Kennedy, a lawyer and best-selling book editor, will be the first female ambassador to Japan. Though lacking in direct diplomatic or political experience, she will bring star power to the Tokyo post that has been lacking in recent years.
Her two immediate predecessors were seen as capable envoys but had little political experience and few personal connections in Washington. Earlier ambassadors like Edwin Reischauer, Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale and Howard Baker brought high-powered connections and intellectual heft to the post.
"There's been a deep fear in Japan about 'Japan passing' - that is, being ignored by the United States. So sending someone with such a big name reassures them," says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University of Japan, in Tokyo.
Kennedy takes over as the Obama administration "re-balances" U.S. diplomatic and military attention to the Asia-Pacific region. About 50,000 U.S. troops and the powerful U.S. 7th Fleet are based in Japan.
Abe is looking to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance while dealing with a host of difficult issues: jump-starting the long-dormant economy; revising Japan's pacifist constitution; fending off territorial claims from China; and easing the nuclear power crisis in northeast Japan.
NHK, the national broadcaster, has aired hour-long specials on the Kennedy family throughout this week, and earlier carried parts of Kennedy's Senate confirmation hearings live. The new ambassador is scheduled to meet with the popular Emperor Akihito on Nov. 19 to present her credentials. The highly ceremonial meeting, which will mark the start of Kennedy's official duties, is likely to be broadcast live, as well.
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