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Kennedy in Japan tsunami zone, highlights U.S. ties

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    New U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, right, was greeted by tsunami survivors at the Nakasemachi temporary housing facility in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan on Monday.

MINAMISANRIKU, Japan » Just 10 days after arriving in Japan as the new U.S. 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 at a temporary housing site in Minamisanriku, a city mostly destroyed by the tsunami.

Kennedy sat down for tea with women still living in tiny temporary housing units nearly three years after the disaster. Of 197 homes in their district, only nine were left standing. A project started by volunteers makes crocheted and knitted dish scrubbers shaped like sea creatures for sale, and Kennedy asked to buy some to give as Christmas gifts.

"Working on these things, we have to concentrate, or we drop stitches. That helps us to forget what we’ve lost," said Akiko Sugawara, 64, one of about a half dozen residents who spent much of an hour chatting with Kennedy.

"Until I came here it was hard to really comprehend the extent of your losses. I admire your courage and resilience," Kennedy said.

Earlier Monday (Sunday in Hawaii), Kennedy visited a park in the port city of Ishinomaki to see a wide vista of the 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 mother who has had little to do with politics, let alone diplomacy, throughout her career.

She could become the most influential U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. "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 nearly 19,000 people dead or missing, and tens of thousands of people remain in temporary prefabricated housing more than 2 1/2 years later.

Her newfound celebrity in Japan aside, Kennedy is learning on the job as a first-time diplomat, arriving at a time when the U.S. is working hard to shore up its commitments in the region in line with President Barack Obama’s "pivot" toward Asia.

"She is highly regarded largely for her top-brand image, as we hardly know her political skills," said Kyouji Yanagisawa, a former national security official in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Exchanging high-fives with school children and joking with the Japanese ladies over whether her children do their dishwashing, Kennedy struck a sympathetic, companionable tone in her first major event with the Japanese public.

"If she can establish that natural and disarming style as her Tokyo signature then she will be very well received," Snow said.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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