On March 5, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy attended the opening ceremony for an exhibition entitled “JFK: His Life and Legacy” at the National Archives of Japan in Tokyo. Seated alongside the other illustrious guests was a woman in a wheelchair who was dressed in a beautiful gold kimono. Her eyes glistened with emotion as she listened intently to Ambassador Kennedy speak. She was the widow of Kohei Hanami, the commander of the Imperial Navy destroyer, Amagiri.

In August 1943, the Amagiri rammed and sank PT-109, the torpedo boat commanded by then Lieutenant (JG) John F. Kennedy. Two of PT-109’s crew died. Lieutenant Kennedy and the others managed to swim ashore to the nearby Solomon Islands and were later rescued. Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism. After the war, he befriended Captain Hanami and maintained a correspondence with him.

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening event, Ambassador Kennedy took Mrs. Hanami’s hand and said with heartfelt emotion: “I’ve been hoping to meet you ever since I became Ambassador.”

ambassador Kennedy talks to Mrs. Hanami

The JFK exhibition includes over 160 objects, many on loan from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum and others that have been preserved by institutions in Japan. Among the many fascinating items is President Kennedy’s reading copy of a famous speech he gave after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which he called for world peace. Prime Minister Abe, though, elicited laughter during his opening remarks, when he said that out of all the exhibits perhaps the most amazing was a crayon drawing of a sunflower made by Ambassador Kennedy when she was a small child.

Prime Minister Abe noted that the exhibition gave him the opportunity to view for the first time the diary of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, the younger brother of his grandfather. In the diary, Prime Minister Sato wrote about his impression of President Kennedy’s inaugural address in which he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Prime Minister Abe expressed hope that many people will visit the exhibition “to learn about President Kennedy and his family, and the history behind their fight for world peace, democracy and human rights.”

The exhibition contains two items in particular that are certain to draw attention: a letter and photograph that John Kennedy sent to Captain Hanami. The letter was written by Kennedy in February 1953, just after he became a senator. Reading it, one can see clearly the future President’s commitment to U.S.-Japan ties. “I think it most important that the relations between Japan and the United States remain firm and strong for our own mutual security,” Kennedy wrote. “I intend to work as a senator toward that end.” He enclosed a photograph with a handwritten message saying: “To Captain Hanami, late enemy and present friend.”

photo of jfk that was sent to Captain Hanami

At a reception held to commemorate the opening of the JFK exhibition, Ambassador Kennedy spoke of “the spirit of reconciliation” represented by the presence of Captain Hanami’s widow and relatives at the event. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The United States and Japan have built a partnership that brings stability and prosperity to the four corners of the Earth. This relationship is based on shared commitments to peace, democracy and human rights. Like Kennedy and Hanami, who overcame their war experiences to become friends, Americans and Japanese have formed countless bonds. These human ties, so well exemplified by the simple story of two men named Hanami and Kennedy, are the building blocks of the U.S.-Japan relationship.