Japanese woman’s gift to John F. Kennedy reciprocated by envoy daughter decades later


A 93-year-old Japanese woman in Hokkaido received a doll Wednesday from U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, who wanted to return the favor her father received from the woman more than 50 years ago.

The gift, accompanied by a letter from the ambassador, was delivered to a nursing home in Kitami on the northernmost main island where Tsuyako Matsumoto resides, in time for the March 3 hina matsuri, or the Doll Festival in Japan.

“I’m happy. This will be a lifetime memory. Thank you,” a teary Matsumoto said, embracing the Kit Kittredge doll while lying in her bed. The ambassador refrained from giving the gift in person in consideration of Matsumoto’s health.

The doll of the character from the popular American Girl Dolls series was in appreciation of a set of traditional Japanese hina dolls the ambassador’s father, President John F. Kennedy, received at the White House.

“Her name is Kit Kittredge, and she celebrates American culture in the year 1934, when you were a girl here in Japan. Like you, she is a creative spirit with big ideas,” Kennedy wrote.

The ambassador located Matsumoto with the help of Japanese media after the U.S. Consulate General in Sapporo, Hokkaido, failed to find her based on her postal address more than 50 years ago. When Kennedy visited Sapporo in February last year, she sought cooperation from the media in finding the whereabouts of the sender of the dolls her father received when she was a little girl.

In 1962, Matsumoto decided to send the colorful dolls, which wear Japanese traditional court dress, to President Kennedy after writing to him one day and unexpectedly receiving a reply expressing gratitude from a presidential secretary.

Matsumoto could not comprehend the English message so she asked a doctor at a hospital where she routinely went at the time to translate in Japanese. The reply from Washington delighted her.

At the time, she was running a grocery store in Kitami and bought a set of 15 dolls with money she earned from knitting and other side jobs. Matsumoto thought expensive Japanese dolls would be a decent gift for the U.S. president. She wondered if the dolls would surprise him.

With the help of a clerk at the department store in Kitami where she bought the dolls, Matsumoto finally shipped them to the White House.

The ambassador used to play with the Japanese dolls when she was a child and has since kept the set. The dolls, typically on display in Japanese homes for the March 3 festival, also known as Girls’ Day, are now on display at the envoy’s official residence in Tokyo.

“Your gift brought joy to me and to the people of America,” Kennedy wrote in the letter. “I hope this gift of an American Girl Doll continues in that spirit, to promote international friendship as well as to celebrate girls and women everywhere.”

The ambassador selected the 45-cm-tall doll in a flower-printed turquoise green dress.

  • Liars N. Fools

    American Girl dolls are shameless commercialism unlike the genuine cultural gift that Caroline received.

  • Liars N. Fools

    American Girl dolls are shameless commercialism unlike the genuine cultural gift that Caroline received.

    • Allison

      Is that all you gleaned from this article? Seriously?

    • RaeRae

      It’s not like we really have anything equivalent since 1) our culture doesn’t go back nearly as far and 2) we just don’t produce cultural traditional items like this. Unfortunately, America has a throw-away culture, we don’t treasure cultural keepsakes and keep them going like Japan and other countries do. I think the Period era American Girl dolls are quite nice and as nice a gesture as Caroline could make 50 years after the fact. Next time, don’t be so boorish.

      • Liars N. Fools

        Caroline is from New York with an absolutely fine tradition of arts and crafts, which she and probably her mother probably patronized at one point. She could have highlighted some part of that culture rather than taking a commercial route.

        Caroline has been a nice, figure head envoy but her main modality has been PR, building on the JFK mythology in Japan (Reischauer and all that). Surely her PR special assistant whom she brought with her (see the inspector general report on Embassy Tokyo) could have advised a far nicer personalized gift based on real craft.

  • JimmyJM

    A nice gesture on the part of both ladies.