Caroline Kennedy visits Japan's disaster-struck regions

Updated: 2013-11-26 07:31


Caroline Kennedy visits Japan's disaster-struck regions

New US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, flanked by a Japanese school child, uses a brush to write a Japanese word or character meaning "Friends" as she tried a calligraphy lesson at Mangokuura Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, in this photo released by Kyodo November 25, 2013. [Photo/Agencies]

ISHINOMAKI - Just 10 days after arriving in Japan as the new US ambassador, Caroline Kennedy is making a two-day visit to areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami to meet survivors and highlight America's commitment to supporting its ally.

The appointment of the daughter of President John F. Kennedy has been popular among Japanese, and it was no different in the industrial port city of Ishinomaki, where residents stood in the wind and pouring rain waiting for a glimpse of the new ambassador.

She visited a park with a wide vista of the city's tsunami-ravaged waterfront before heading to an elementary school, where students performed skits in English and sang "Happy Birthday" to Kennedy, who turns 56 on Wednesday.

Kennedy has so far stuck to carefully scripted events, mostly avoiding interviews as she adapts to a more public role after living a largely private life. Thousands of people turned out last week to see her ride in a horse-drawn carriage to present her diplomatic credentials to Emperor Akihito. The Japanese media have praised her low-key style, which many see as appropriate for a working mom who has had little to do with politics, let alone diplomacy, throughout her career.

She could become the most influential US ambassador to Japan since Edwin Reischauer, who was President Kennedy's envoy 50 years ago, said Nancy Snow, an American visiting professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

"She is primarily a soft-power ambassador who will play to her strengths in culture, education and shared values between the US and Japan," Snow said. "She will highlight her many roles that resonate here: wife, mother, public service and humanitarian advocate."

The visit to the disaster region fits with those priorities.

Kennedy tried her hand at calligraphy and exchanged high-fives with schoolchildren as she toured the northeastern region, about 340 kilometers (210 miles) north of Tokyo. She brushed in black ink the Japanese character for the word "tomo," or friend. She then sat down to read "Where the Wild Things Are," the classic children's tale by American author Maurice Sendak, to a sixth-grade class.

Her visit was also a tribute to the US "Tomodachi," or friendship, program that provided initial rescue and relief and longer-term support for survivors of the disaster. She presented 112 books to the Mangokuura Elementary School, donated in memory of Taylor Anderson, an American who died in the tsunami while teaching at the school and others in Ishinomaki.

Rebuilding has barely begun. Makeshift stores, restaurants, car washes and laundries have been set up in areas flattened by the tsunami, which was triggered by a magnitude-9 earthquake. The disaster left more than 18,000 people dead or missing, and tens of thousands of people remain in temporary, prefabricated housing more than 2 1/2 years later.

Her new-found celebrity in Japan aside, Kennedy will also have to prove herself as a first-time diplomat. Kyouji Yanagisawa, a former national security official in the Prime Minister's Office, said: "She is highly regarded largely for her top-brand image, as we hardly know her political skills."

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