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Did Barack, Shinzo get down to sushi or business?

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

U.S. President Barack Obama had his first session with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday in Tokyo, treated at what is often touted as the best-ever sushi bar in Japan: Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

Abe greeted Obama, who rushed straight from Haneda airport in Tokyo, at the entrance to the small sushi bar run by legendary sushi master Jiro Ono.

The restaurant was chosen “because I knew he likes eating Japanese cuisine,” Abe told reporters after the meeting.

According to Abe, Obama told him he was having “the best sushi I’ve ever eaten” although he was born in Hawaii and has had many chances to eat sushi in his life.

A Japanese media report Thursday said that instead of making small talk and savoring the Japanese delicacies, Obama jumped straight into discussions about trade.

The owner of a yakitori restaurant that shares the basement with the exclusive diner told Tokyo Broadcasting System that Obama put his chopsticks down in the middle of the meal.

Yet another media report said Obama ate 14 of the approximately 20 pieces served.

Ono is well known at home and abroad. His small sushi bar in Ginza has been visited by a number of celebrities from around the world.

While the two leaders were dining, part of the main street of the Ginza district was blockaded by police, and thousands of curious onlookers were kept back by fences put up around the block.

When Obama arrived at the sushi bar, Obama called Abe by his first name, “Shinzo,” and Abe responded by saying “How are you?” in English — probably intended to show off a personal closeness between the two leaders.

For a Japanese leader, having a foreign leader use his first name is considered a symbol of closeness.

Thus, Japanese prime ministers often ask foreign leaders, in particular U.S. presidents, to call them by their first name in conversations carried out in English.

After shaking hands and posing for a photo, the two leaders entered the sushi bar. Reporters and photographers were barred from entering and thus were unable to see what was transpiring inside Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Only a small group of close aides were allowed to accompany the two leaders to enjoy the delicacies of the sushi master, namely U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice, Shotaro Yachi, director general of Abe’s National Security Council, and Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae, according to Japanese officials.

Information from AFP-JIJI added