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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Japanese State Dinners

President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend official welcoming ceremonies on the South Lawn, April 2015.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Following the close of World War II, Japan and the United States developed a close alliance along with strategic and trade partnerships. Beginning with Gerald R. Ford in November 1974, seven U.S. presidents have made journeys to Japan, and the Japanese heads of state and government have also visited the White House.

Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko arrived in Washington on September 27, 1960, and 15,000 spectators cheered them as they made their way from the airport. At the White House just before that evening’s state dinner, Akihito presented President Eisenhower with the Order of the Chrysanthemum, his nation’s highest honor. The state dinner forced the president’s four-year old granddaughter Mary Jean to forgo her usual evening journey up and down the hallways in her battery-powered mini-Thunderbird convertible.1

Thirty years later Crown Prince Akihito formally assumed the throne left vacant by the death of his father Hirohito. With Empress Michiko, Akihito returned to the White House in June 1994. Under a white tent in the Rose Garden, 173 guests at the state dinner enjoyed a meal featuring grilled arctic char and lobster sausage. In the East Room afterward, the National Symphony’s music director Mstislav Rostropovich performed cello sonatas. During the dinner president William J. Clinton quoted to the emperor lines from the noted poet of Japan’s edo period, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).2

Prime Minister Eisaku Sato was the guest of honor at a White House state dinner on November 14, 1967. Because Sato was fascinated by baseball, major league baseball commissioner William D. Eckert and St. Louis Cardinals star pitcher Bob Gibson were among the guests. 3

In the summer of 1967 author and chef Julia Child and producer Russ Morash at station WGBH Boston had approached the first lady’s press secretary and staff director Liz Carpenter and her assistant Simone Poulain with an idea for filming a state dinner documentary. Initially called “Dining and Diplomacy,” the documentary would be a behind-the-scenes look at how state dinners were arranged by the White House culinary and domestic staffs and the social secretary. In the days before the Sato state dinner, Child interviewed U.S. Chief of Protocol James Symington and White House Executive Chef Henry Haller in the White House kitchens, and during the dinner the film crew was permitted to work in the State Dining Room. Child and her husband Paul were among the 190 guests at the dinner, and singer Tony Bennett provided after-dinner entertainment. Child thought the food served – artichoke choron, noissets of lamb, and white asparagus polonaise – was superb and praised the service to the guests and the organization of the dinner. The documentary, finally titled “The White House Red Carpet,” aired in April 1968. 4

In October 1975 Emperor Hirohito became the first reigning Japanese monarch to make a state visit to the United States, and President Gerald and First Lady Betty Ford held a state dinner for the Emperor And Empress Nagako on October 2. Although the Fords usually favored small round tables, the dinner took place instead around an e-shaped table. The 122 guests dined on a main course of lobster and veal medallions with rice. Pianist Van Cliburn played works by Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann. 5

The 1979 state dinner for visiting Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira was notable for being an outdoor affair held on the West Terrace. White House Social Secretary Gretchen Poston had discovered that Ohira had always wanted to go to a barbeque, so in addition to stuffed avocado pear, salad and new potatoes, the 180 guests dined on barbeque of buffalo meat and suckling pig roasted on halved 50-gallon oil drums. Gardenia and primrose plants decorated the tables as small electric bulbs threaded in fichus trees provided light, and pianist Bobby Short provided entertainment in the East Room. 6

Executive Chef Henry Haller, who supervised cuisine preparation, later recalled: “If President Johnson had had his way, we would have had a barbeque every day. My first barbeque was for Congress in 1966. Nervous? Yes. I never did a barbeque for so many people. It took a lot of planning.” 7