Japan’s ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Edwin Schlossberg at a tea ceremony at the Japanese embassy Tuesday night. (Courtesy the Embassy of Japan)

There was something different about Caroline Kennedy Tuesday night, but it took a while to figure out what it was.

The newly named ambassador to Japan was conservatively dressed, as usual, in a black dress and understated gold jewelry. Her hair was slightly unruly, her face unadorned by much makeup. Then it hit us: She was happy.

Normally self-contained and somewhat stiff in public, Kennedy, moved through the celebration at the Japanese embassy with an ease rarely seen in her other public appearances. She smiled often and broadly. She held hands with her husband, Ed Schlossberg. At one point, while listening to the many tributes to her new role, you could catch glimpses of her mother’s playfulness and charm. As she worked the crowd, one attendee noted a resemblance to her father, “I didn’t realize she has that Kennedy physical charisma.”

Hundreds of guests descended on the Japanese embassy for the reception, hosted by Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae and attended by VIPs (Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Ed Markey, Alan Greenspan) friends, and plenty of the extended Kennedy family, including Maria Shriver and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Ambassador Kennedy watches as the young daughters of two embassy staffers recite Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." (Courtesy the Embassy of Japan) Ambassador Kennedy watches as the young daughters of two embassy staffers recite Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” (Courtesy the Embassy of Japan)

“At least, for tonight, this is the Kennedy Center,” Ambassador Sasae told the audience, who said his countrymen would love Kennedy’s “elegant politeness and tender heart.” In honor of her love of poetry, two young daughters of embassy staffers recited Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” for the new envoy.

After leading an intensely private life in New York, Kennedy, 55, leaped at President Obama’s appointment to become ambassador to Japan. She has visited several times (she and her husband honeymooned in the country) and is now bringing her family’s storied history to the high-profile job in Tokyo. She’s not the first in her family to hold the title of ambassador — grandfather Joe Kennedy served as ambassador to Great Britain, aunt Jean Kennedy Smith was ambassador to Ireland — but she’s the first female ambassador from the United States to Japan. That’s a very big deal, and dovetails nicely with Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s call for “a society in which women shine” and more female leaders.

“I am most grateful to President Obama for entrusting me with this important mission,” Kennedy said in her short remarks. “It’s a momentous time in history, and a critical time in U.S-Japan relations.” And then she said, in Japanese, “I’ll see you in Japan.”

Kennedy is leaving for Japan Thursday and is expected to present her credentials to Emperor Akihito next week. Whether the timing was coincidental or deliberate (she took no questions from the press), her departure means that she’ll escape the onslaught of coverage on next week’s 50th anniversary of her father’s assassination. Not surprising, when you think about it — while she’s been a passionate supporter of the Kennedy family name, her father’s death is part of his history, not his legacy.

And yet — the family story is always there. Kerry, who officially swore Kennedy in earlier in the day at the State Department, first met her in 1962, when she was 4 years old. “I think everyone here knows this,” Kerry told the crowd. “Because of her family and because of the road she has traveled, it’s hardly the road less traveled. But she has done so with special grace and with the captured imaginations of all Americans who, from the time she was yea high, have watched her. In many ways, she’s been an ambassador all her life.” Japan is getting “an envoy who has the ear of the president, the respect of the president, the affection of the president.”

The program ended with a sake toast and a string quartet’s slightly quirky rendition of (what else?) “Sweet Caroline.”

Ambassador Kennedy, Schlossberg, Ambassador Sasae and Secretary of State John Kerry after a toast. (Courtesy the Embassy of Japan)

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