State dinner for Abe at White House surprises with haiku, sake and R&B

AP, Kyodo

The first White House state dinner in more than a year served up some surprises: a president reciting haiku, toasts using sake instead of champagne and the leader of Japan describing relations between the countries using the words of a popular R&B classic.

Obama claimed to be the first president to recite a haiku, a form of Japanese poetry that consists of just three lines and rarely rhymes, before offering his toast on Tuesday night in front of guests seated in an East Room awash in pink lighting and decorated with vibrant displays of orchids, cherry blossoms and other flowers.

“Spring, green and friendship.”

“United States and Japan.”

“Nagoyaka ni.” (Obama said that means “harmonious feeling.”)

When it was his turn to speak, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan also reached for the lyrical to describe what he said is a bilateral relationship between former World War II adversaries that is unlike any other.

“Ain’t no mountain high enough. Ain’t no valley low enough to keep me from you,” Abe said. “The relationship between the United States and Japan is just like this.”

The distinctive clanking of sake-filled cups filled the room after each toast. Obama noted the break with tradition to give up champagne in favor of the rice-based beverage made in Yamaguchi, Abe’s home prefecture in Japan.

“Please enjoy yourself, but not too much,” Obama admonished his guests.

Not to be left out, Michelle Obama found a fashionable way to honor the guest nation. She wore a purple sleeveless gown by Japanese-born designer Tadashi Shoji.

With just under 200 guests, it was Obama’s smallest state dinner and it had a decidedly low celebrity quotient.

“Star Trek” luminary George Takei returned 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. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson declared the dinner “amazing.”

Guest chef Masaharu Morimoto, of TV’s “Iron Chef” fame, was also in the house, working with White House chefs on a meal that blended American and Japanese influences: Think of Caesar salad tied up like a gift with Mizuhiki paper cord. American wagyu beef. And cheesecake — made with tofu and soy milk.

Dinner tables were set with 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.

The White House state dinner has become an especially rare commodity under Obama: Tuesday’s was just the eighth of his more than six years in office. That’s the smallest number since the six dinners Harry Truman played host to over eight years as president, according to the White House Historical Association.

Obama has at least one more dinner in the offing, for China in the fall.

Morimoto was a natural choice as guest chef. His restaurant on Oahu is a favorite dining spot when the Obamas vacation in Hawaii.

During a welcoming ceremony for Abe earlier in the day, Obama pleased Japanese in the audience, using a Japanese greeting and hailing the country’s pop culture such as emoji emoticons, karaoke and anime.

“Ohayo gozaimasu,” Obama said, starting his address with “good morning” in Japanese at the event, which took place at the White House with Abe and his wife, Akie.

“This visit is a celebration of the ties of friendship and family that bind our peoples,” Obama said while standing side by side with Abe, who became the first Japanese leader in nine years to visit the United States as an official guest.

“Today is also a chance for Americans, especially our young people, to say thank you for all the things we love from Japan,” Obama said.

“Like karate and karaoke. Manga and anime. And, of course, emojis,” Obama, the father of two teenage daughters, said, drawing laughter from the audience of hundreds, including many Japanese.

Obama said Abe’s visit “has historic significance” and both governments will broaden their alliance to tackle various issues such as security and trade issues as well as protection of human rights.

Abe, who last visited Washington more than two years ago, said he was delighted to return to the United States at a time when “bilateral ties have become stronger than ever.”