It was only a year ago that President Barack Obama, visiting Tokyo for a state visit, found himself out to dinner with the prime minister dining on what’s widely considered the best sushi on the planet.
The nearly two-hour outing to Sukiyabashi Jiro, the subterranean mecca for raw fish enthusiasts, was a chance for the President to chat quietly with Prime Minster Shinzo Abe before the distractions of an imperial welcome made conversations difficult.
Obama – whose favorite meal is sushi – couldn’t finish the 20-piece tasting menu. But he’s hoping to replicate Abe’s hospitality when the Japanese leader arrives for bilateral talks and a state dinner on Tuesday.
For the first time since 2011, the Obamas will host State Dinner guests indoors rather than in a tent on the South Lawn. The smaller venue means fewer guests – around 200, half of the nearly 400 who attended last year’s dinner honoring French President Francois Hollande – but it also translates to a more intimate venue to build person-to-person ties between the U.S. and Japan.
“It’s going to be a good and substantive and important visit,” said Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who noted it’s coming 70 years after the conclusion of World War II, when the U.S. and Japan were bitter enemies.
Disputes from that era haven’t disappeared completely. Japan is mired in a bitter feud with South Korea over what Korea claims is Abe’s whitewashing of Japan’s wartime behavior, including the imprisonment of sex slaves known as “comfort women.”
Abe – a conservative – has suggested he won’t repeat past prime ministers’ public apologies for Japan’s treatment of women during the war, and has enraged leaders in Seoul and Beijing by visiting a controversial war shrine in Tokyo that pays tribute to Japanese war dead, including war criminals.
Protests are planned while Abe is in Washington, fueled in part by the large Korean-American population in nearby Fairfax Country, Virginia, to urge Abe to apologize during his speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
Officials say they expect the issue to arise during bilateral talks between Obama and Abe, who are also working to finalize a major trade pact with other Asian countries. Tensions between Japan and South Korea pose a problem for the United States since the countries are its staunchest allies in Asia, and represent the strongest counterbalance to China.
Any underlying tensions won’t be visible during Tuesday’s State Dinner, where the theme, according to White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard, is a “long awaited spring.”
The entry hall is lined with massive gilded urns filled with cherry blossom branches, a traditional symbol of U.S.-Japan ties since 1912, when Tokyo sent a pair of cherry trees to Washington as a gift.
A menu crafted with the help of “Iron Chef” star Masaharu Morimoto – the proprietor of an Obama-frequented restaurant in Waikiki – will be served atop newly purchased sets of formal dinnerware that feature a band of teal trim dubbed “Kailua Blue,” named after the upscale enclave in Obama’s home state of Hawaii where the first family rent a home every Christmas. The new china was produced by Illinois-based Pickard, a nod to the first lady’s own birthplace.
Five courses of American-Japanese fusion fare will emerge from the White House kitchen on Tuesday, including a reconsidered Caesar salad prepared with tuna, wrapped in sheet of clear acetate, and tied together with a traditional Japanese gift-wrapping cord.
Red chopsticks will be waiting for diners when they take their seats, though forks and knives are also available. Guests will toast with sake made in Abe’s home prefecture, while chardonnay from a Japanese-American winemaker in Sonoma will accompany dinner.
The food itself may lean heavily on Japanese cuisine, the after-dinner entertainment is purely American: the cast of the movie “Jersey Boys,” featuring the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.