WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s state dinner for the prime minister of Japan offered guests a haiku, some R&B and the specter of chopsticks — for those brave enough to go there.
The president welcomed guest of honor Shinzo Abe with a toast over sake that included a poem about spring, friendship and harmony, declaring himself the first president to recite a haiku at a state dinner.
Abe, in return, went with R&B: He quoted the classic song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to convey the strength of the bonds between the U.S. and Japan.
First lady Michelle Obama found another way to pay tribute to the guest nation, wearing a purple, sleeveless gown by Japanese-born designer Tadashi Shoji.
With fewer than 200 guests, it was Obama’s smallest state dinner, and it had a decidedly low celebrity quotient.
“Star Trek” luminary George Takei was back for his first state visit since the Clinton administration. TV powerhouse Shonda Rhimes, mastermind of the hit shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” was a first-timer.
Asked about her chopstick skills, Rhimes waggled her hand uncertainly. Takei, by contrast, said he’d grown up with chopsticks.
Takei’s husband, Brad, wondered what the big deal was.
“Is that exotic for the White House?” he asked.
Anyway, no worries: There was flatware for those wanting to play it safe.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson turned up with R&B singer Ciara, fresh off attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend with his grandmother.
“She’s back in Virginia,” Wilson explained of his grandmother. His new date, for her part, took plenty of time to arrange her gown just so — twice — for the cameras.
Vice President Walter Mondale, who also served as ambassador to Japan, arrived at the White House in the role of seasoned veteran of state dinners.
Asked how many he’d attended, Mondale mused: “I’m not sure. Thirty?”
“When I was vice president, I had to go,” he confessed.
On a celebratory night, the violence unfolding not far away in Baltimore cast a shadow.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred, was among the guests. Asked about the decision to play Wednesday’s game in Baltimore between the White Sox and the Orioles in a stadium closed to the public, he said, “We made a decision based on safety concerns,” adding that both teams were cooperating in “a very difficult situation.”
Guest chef Masaharu Morimoto, of TV’s “Iron Chef” fame, and the White House culinary team served up a meal fusing American and Japanese influences: Think Caesar salad tied up with Mizuhiki paper cord. American Wagyu beef. And cheesecake — made with tofu and soy milk.
Tables in the East Room sported the new White House china that the Obamas unveiled this week, featuring stripes of a “Kailua blue” hue inspired by the Pacific waters that are dear to the Hawaiian-born president and the Japanese as well.
As with every state dinner, it was all part of a carefully laid plan to promote friendly relations between the U.S. president and the leader of the guest country. That would be Abe, who joked at a Tuesday luncheon that he dared not overdo the drinking at dinner because he’s addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday.
Even the after-dinner entertainment was aimed at bringing together the two cultures. Cast members from the film adaptation of “Jersey Boys” were performing selections from the jukebox musical, which was popular in Japan.
The White House state dinner has become an especially rare commodity under this president: This is just the eighth state dinner for Obama over more than six years in office. That’s the smallest number since the six dinners that Harry Truman played host to over eight years in office, according to the White House Historical Association. Obama has at least one more dinner in the offing, for China in the fall.
After four years on the job, Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard was presiding over his final state dinner before handing off to his deputy, Deesha Dyer, a former hip-hop journalist who started out as a White House intern.
Early in the night, Bernard was all business. But he predicted that would change as the night wore on.
“I will get nostalgic probably around 11 o’clock,” he said.
(Photos: Associated Press)