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Published January 18, 2017
Caroline Kennedy stepped down Wednesday after three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan, where she was welcomed like a celebrity and worked to deepen the U.S.-Japan relationship despite regular flare-ups over American military bases on the southern island of Okinawa.
Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, she had been expected to leave with the coming change in U.S. leadership. President-elect Donald Trump's transition team has also said that all envoys who were political appointees must step down by Inauguration Day on Friday. Trump has not named a new ambassador yet.
Kennedy ruffled some feathers early in her tenure by tweeting her opposition to Japan's dolphin hunt, shortly after her embassy issued a statement expressing "disappointment" that Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had visited a shrine that memorializes World War II war criminals, among others.
During her time, though, the conservative Abe and liberal Obama found common ground despite coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
"She has great skills and authority as a convener, a much needed function in U.S.-Japan relations," said Kent Calder, the director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. "She has been more of a network builder than a concrete policy initiator, but that is almost an inevitable role for ambassadors these days."
He said her legacy includes facilitating Obama's historic visit to Hiroshima last May, one of two Japanese cities devastated by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945. Kennedy was in Pearl Harbor at the end of last year when Abe reciprocated with a visit to the site of Japan's 1941 surprise attack that drew America into World War II.
Some will also remember the efforts of the first female U.S. ambassador to Japan to promote literacy and women's and LGBT rights, and for her visits to the northeast region slowly recovering from a deadly and destructive tsunami in 2011.
"She was true to the Obama administration goals, and she maintained the Kennedy mystique without making it the focal point of her tenure," said Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. "I will remember her as a champion of person-to-person exchange and engagement."
Winning understanding in Okinawa for a reduced but still large U.S. military presence proved an impossible task, and was hampered by a series of incidents from crimes by U.S. base personnel to crashes of U.S. military aircraft.
"In every ambassadorship, there are both enduring issues and unpredictable events," she told Japan's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, in a farewell interview. "In my case, both were linked to Okinawa."
The daughter of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy arrived in November 2013 to more fanfare than the typical envoy. Thousands of onlookers lined streets to snap pictures and wave as she traveled by horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to Japan's emperor. The procession was broadcast live on Japan's public broadcaster NHK.
Her popularity strained embassy resources, a 2015 U.S. government report found, because of the demands for her participation in events across the country. It noted that the embassy "has now caught up on the backlog of gifts sent to the ambassador in her first six months in Japan."
Now 59, Kennedy is returning to her Manhattan home with husband Edwin Schlossberg, who split his time between Tokyo and New York. She hasn't indicated publicly what her future plans are.