The following script is from "Ambassador Kennedy" which aired on April 12, 2015. Norah O'Donnell is the correspondent. Draggan Mihailovich, producer.
This is a pivotal time in U.S.-Japanese relations: China is aggressively looking to assert itself in Asia, the U.S. and Japan are negotiating what would be the biggest trade deal in a generation, and old wounds have reopened almost 70 years after the end of World War II. So it was surprising that President Obama nominated Caroline Kennedy to be America's ambassador to Japan. She had no foreign policy experience and limited knowledge of East Asia. But after a year and a half on the job, Ambassador Kennedy has earned the respect of Japan's prime minister and the Japanese people. It has also helped that the Kennedy name still resonates in Japan.
Tradition calls for the new American ambassador to Japan to receive a ceremonial carriage ride to the Imperial Palace. What made Caroline Kennedy's ride different was the thousands who lined the streets to see her off to the palace, where she presented her credentials to the emperor.
And look at the reaction Ambassador Kennedy received one rainy morning last month during what was supposed to be an ordinary visit to a Plum Blossom Festival.
Her reception in Japan since arriving in November 2013 is partly because she has sparked memories of her father, President John F. Kennedy.
Caroline Kennedy: People in Japan very much admire him. It's one of the ways that many people learned English. Almost every day somebody comes up to me and wants to quote the inaugural address. And including senior figures in the military, or, you know people on the street.
[JFK: "Ask not what your country can do for you...]
President Kennedy is still seen by many Japanese as a reflection of the America they idealize: young and dynamic. Last month at Japan's National Archives, a JFK exhibit drew visitors such as Japan's prime minister at Tokyo's Waseda University, students lined up two hours in advance for a symposium on JFK.
Norah O'Donnell: There's so much rich history between your family and Japan.
Caroline Kennedy: That's been a very powerful part of this experience for me. He hoped to be the first American president to visit Japan. And so I think, for me, coming here, that's an extra layer of meaning that this posting has for me.
John Kennedy was nearly killed by the Japanese during the Pacific War. Only 18 years later, he entered the White House and made reconciliation with his former enemy a top priority. He had planned to visit Japan in 1964 and reunite crew members from his PT 109 boat with the captain and crew of the Japanese destroyer that had sunk his boat.
Caroline Kennedy: Now, that would've obviously been incredible. But I was just able to meet the widow of the destroyer captain a few days ago. And so I felt like he was looking down on me and history was really coming full circle.
That Caroline Kennedy, who is now 57, has found herself serving her country halfway around the world is not what she expected when she went to the White House in the winter of 2013, an empty nester looking for a job.
Norah O'Donnell: How did this come about?
Caroline Kennedy: Well, I was in Washington talking to people in the White House about how I might be able to serve the president. And so, they said, "Well, what about ambassador to Japan?" And so I was like "Japan?" So anyway, I said, "Well, I would love to do that."
Norah O'Donnell: But did you say, you know, "Why Japan?" Or, "Am I the right person for this?" Or...
Caroline Kennedy: Oh yeah, I said that too. But since they had suggested it, I figured they had thought it through and they had. And I came home and I said, "OK, well, guess what they said." And of course nobody in my family could have possibly imagined. And everybody got so excited because it was just such an unexpected and amazing opportunity.
[Caroline Kennedy: And I am proud to endorse Senator Barack Obama for president of the United States.]
President Obama owed Caroline Kennedy. She and her Uncle Ted propelled Obama, by endorsing him over Hillary Clinton early and publicly at a critical time during his first campaign.
Norah O'Donnell: I mean, some ambassadorships are ceremonial. This is a really big job. Was there any hesitation?
Caroline Kennedy: No. All the more reason. You know, that's what's so exciting about it. When you feel like you can really make a contribution.
For the Japanese, the appointment was seen as a meaningful sign of the importance America placed on its alliance with Japan.
Kuniko Inoguchi: Oh, we were so honored...
Kuniko Inoguchi is a member of parliament from Japan's ruling party.
Kuniko Inoguchi: Everybody was so very happy. We thought Japan was treated as in a very special way. And, and she has been so effective. I think she's one of the most beloved foreign ambassadors in town.
Many Japanese have been struck by her informality as ambassador and by how she likes to jog regularly around Tokyo like any normal tourist. Caroline Kennedy is known to be private, but she seems more at ease than ever in this job and the Japanese value her because it's believed she can deliver messages directly to President Obama.
Norah O'Donnell: Do you have the president's ear? Do you have a special relationship with him?
Caroline Kennedy: Well, I mean, yes. It depends on what you mean by special relationship. But I feel that if I need to talk to him, I can.
There is plenty to talk about. What is going on in East Asia, Kennedy believes, is the story of the century.
Norah O'Donnell: And yet, the news is dominated by the Middle East.
Caroline Kennedy: Right. You guys are missing the story, OK?
Norah O'Donnell: How?
Caroline Kennedy: Because what is going on out here in Asia is, there is so much opportunity for America. There is so much good will towards America. There is economic opportunity.
Ambassador Kennedy is keen on a massive trade deal, the biggest since NAFTA, that is now being negotiated among the U.S., Japan and 10 other countries. But another issue is looming over East Asia: the ascendance of China. Relations between China and Japan are tense -- a booming China has quadrupled its military spending, doesn't like Japan and has designs on islands the Japanese consider theirs. What many Americans may not know is the United States is obligated to come to Japan's aid in case of an attack.
Norah O'Donnell: How much does Japan depend on the U.S. to defend it?
Caroline Kennedy: Well, we are responsible for the defense of Japan. And we have a security treaty. And so what's being debated here now is the ability of Japan to come to the aid, for example, of us, if we are being threatened.
That debate is being led by Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who wants to unshackle the country's military from its post-war restrictions, making neighbors in Asia very nervous.
Norah O'Donnell: And what's the U.S. position?
Caroline Kennedy: Well, we support this because Japan is an incredibly capable, trusted partner with whom we have very close relationships at the working level, in the military.
Ambassador Kennedy herself has forged a close working relationship with Abe.
Caroline Kennedy: He is a very strong partner for us. I see him regularly. I think he's very pro- the U.S. alliance. What he's really committed to is restoring Japan's ability to be an effective leader on the world stage.
At times Abe hasn't made it easy for Kennedy. He stoked anger throughout much of Asia one month into her assignment by publicly paying homage to Japan's war dead, including 14 war criminals, at Tokyo's infamous Yasukuni Shrine...more recently he's argued that widely accepted accounts of Japanese soldiers abusing what were known as comfort women during World War II are exaggerated.
Norah O'Donnell: What are your thoughts on that?
Caroline Kennedy: Well, I think as President Obama said when he was here in the region last spring, I mean, the violation of human rights that that represents is deplorable. But I think our interest is to encourage the countries to work together and resolve those differences.
Norah O'Donnell: That's a diplomatic answer.
Caroline Kennedy: But it's true!
Norah O'Donnell: No, but what is true is there are thousands of women who were enslaved during World War II in military brothels to service the Japanese military. I mean, is he trying to whitewash history?
Caroline Kennedy: Well, the challenge for Japan-Korea, for Japan-U.S. is to learn from the past so that these horrible violations are never, ever repeated.
Abe wasn't elected to revise the past but to revitalize the economy, an imperative given what's happened to Japan.
There was a time, 30 years ago, when Japan's economic might was seen as a threat to the United States. Japan's electronics and auto industries were the envy of the world. Then, in the 1990s, Japan's bubble burst. Deflation and stagnation became the norm. One lost decade turned into two, leaving many to wonder whether Japan's best days are long past.
That was even before the tsunami hit four years ago. This was the coastal town of
Otsuchi then...and this is the town today. Little has risen but dirt. Japan's population is aging faster than any other country's and the nation is suffering from a shortage of workers. The Japanese are feeling diminished, especially in comparison to China, but Caroline Kennedy is bullish on Japan and seems eager to promote the U.S.-Japanese alliance. She's patient when it comes to the endless ceremonial visits, a requirement of the job.
Caroline Kennedy: I'm a very diplomatic person.
Norah O'Donnell: How so?
Caroline Kennedy: I feel that I've been representing my family legacy all my life. And so in that way it's, it's an extension of some of that work. But this is obviously much more important.
[Caroline Kennedy: This room has a lot of history...]
To walk through the ambassador's official residence is to get a glimpse of history. In this room, one month after World War II, a defeated Emperor Hirohito paid a visit to General Douglas MacArthur, a sign the Americans were now in charge. In her library, Kennedy has pictures of her own role in history. One photo in particular caught our eye...the Kennedy family watching bagpipers from the Scottish regiment, The Black Watch, on the south lawn of the White House...the date: November 13th, 1963.
Caroline Kennedy: My mother kept that picture. It was the last picture of the four of us that was taken. So, it meant a lot to her. So I was, I'm happy to have it.
Norah O'Donnell: Many Americans remember you as that five-year-old girl who was gallivanting around the, the Oval Office, those pictures. What do you remember about your dad?
Caroline Kennedy: Well, I remember, you know, things that little kids would remember. And I do remember playing in the office. And I remember the bedtime stories he used to tell me. I feel really lucky that I do have the memories that I have in the sense that my brother and I were the most important things in his life.
[Jack Schlossberg: Hi, I'm Jack. Nice to meet you...]
While we were in Japan we saw Jack Schlossberg, JFK's grandson and the youngest of Caroline's three children...
[Jack Schlossberg: Thank you for taking care of my mother...]
At 22, he certainly has the bearing and the look, thick hair and all, of another Kennedy politician...as for Caroline Kennedy, being ambassador to Japan appears to suit her just fine. She's not thinking about the future.
Caroline Kennedy: I've seen things change too much, throughout my life. So I, I figure you know, I'll figure it out when it, something'll occur to me. I'll get a bright idea and hopefully it'll be a good one.