Caroline Kennedy was greeted by thousands of cheering Japanese as she passed through the streets of Tokyo to present her credentials to Emperor Akihito as the U.S.’s first female ambassador to Japan.
Spectators, many of them elderly, lined the streets snapping photos of Kennedy, 55, as she passed in a century-old horse-drawn carriage. Crowds thronged the front of the Imperial Palace where Kennedy met with the 79-year-old emperor in a ceremony marking the official start of her duties.
Kennedy’s background as the only living child of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy and her ties to President Barack Obama have heightened attention on her appointment in Japan. Her father had hoped to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Japan before he was assassinated in Dallas 50 years ago this week.
“Some people say she doesn’t have enough foreign policy experience, but her fame is her strength,” said Fujio Yanaka, a 76-year-old retiree who waited outside the Meiji Yasuda Seimei Building to catch a glimpse of Kennedy before the ceremony. “I hope she’ll pass on the spirit of JFK and carry out diplomacy for peace.”
In today’s ceremony, Kennedy handed the emperor a letter from President Obama with her credentials, along with a letter of resignation from her predecessor, John Roos, according to the Imperial Household Agency. The emperor usually receives about 40 new ambassadors each year.
Chieko Nishimura, a 78-year-old Tokyo resident, shouted “Caroline!” as Kennedy boarded the carriage, which was built in 1913 by Imperial Household craftsmen and adorned with golden chrysanthemums, the symbol of the emperor. It was pulled by Cleveland Bay horses bred on the emperor’s estates and specially trained for ceremonial occasions.
“I remember her as a little girl after her father died,” Nishimura said. “The people of Japan have been waiting for her.”
After the ceremony she returned by carriage to the Meiji Yasuda Seimei building, which was used by Allied forces from 1945 to 1956. In the adjoining atrium hundreds of people strained for a glimpse of her, calling out and taking photos.
“I just was honored to present my credentials to his majesty and to begin work as ambassador,” she said. “It was a wonderful ceremony and I am honored to represent my country.”
Kennedy will represent the U.S. at a time when the Obama administration is making Asia a foreign-policy priority via what it calls a strategic and economic “rebalancing.” The administration is working toward a trade alliance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, meant to anchor the U.S. within the world’s fastest-growing economic region.
The U.S. is also seeking to bolster its strategic alliance with Japan as the countries respond to China’s growing military and economic muscle in the region and the threat from North Korea’s nuclear program. Japan and China are embroiled in a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering reinterpreting the country’s pacifist constitution to allow its military to defend allies. The U.S., which imposed the constitution on Japan after World War II, supports the proposed change, which has been criticized by South Korea and China, two countries that suffered under Japanese occupation.
Kennedy, who studied Japanese history and holds a law degree, first visited Japan in 1978 when she traveled to Hiroshima with her uncle, the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy. She also spent her honeymoon in Japan, visiting Nara and Kyoto. A New York native, she has edited several books and has three children.
“I grew up reading President Kennedy’s biographies,” Shinobu Nakade, 56, a member of the JFK Club Japan, a local John F. Kennedy fan club, said before today’s event. “I think Caroline is someone who can build a good U.S.-Japan relationship by capturing the hearts of Japanese people through her personality and reputation.”