The special relationship between Japan and the United States means that prime ministers have always extended the highest level of “omotenashi,” or Japanese hospitality, to a visiting U.S. president.
In the recent past, that has included a tea ceremony, a demonstration of traditional mounted horseback archery and a night out at a traditional pub.
Now, comes Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s chance to show off his omotenashi skills as he prepares for the first visit to Japan by President Joe Biden.
But Kishida faces a time constraint because while Biden will arrive in Japan on May 22, the next day will be the only one that Kishida has to develop a closer relationship with the president.
A meeting of the so-called Quad nations that also includes Australia and India is planned for May 24 before Biden departs Japan.
The welcome shown the visiting U.S. president has not only cemented the bilateral relationship in the past, but the photo opportunities also allow the Japanese leader to tout the relationship to the Japanese public.
That factor is important to Kishida because of this summer’s Upper House election and because it will be about seven months since he became prime minister to hold a face-to-face meeting with Biden.
Kishida had sought a meeting with Biden earlier, but the novel coronavirus pandemic as well as the Omicron variant made overseas trips difficult for both sides.
Kishida initially wanted to offer Biden “okonomiyaki” Japanese pancakes that are a personal favorite and because it is a symbolic cuisine of Hiroshima Prefecture, which he represents.
But security concerns led to the decision to not use an okonomiyaki restaurant as the site for a dinner between Kishida and Biden.
Instead, the Happo-en restaurant in the Shiroganedai district, noted for its Japanese garden, will be the locale for the May 23 dinner.
Japanese officials are also uncertain about just what preferences the U.S. president has for Japanese cuisine. Biden is known for favoring the food of the common folk, such as ice cream and pasta, but officials are still puzzling over what to include in the menu for the dinner reception.
Past prime ministers have solidified the Japan-U.S. relationship through a personal friendship with the U.S. president.
Perhaps the most notable example is the late Yasuhiro Nakasone, who invited visiting U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, to his villa in the western outskirts of the capital in 1983.
Nakasone even made tea for the Reagans in the traditional tea ceremony style and blew on a conch shell.
That led to the two leaders calling each other “Ron” and “Yasu” as they forged a strong alliance during the Cold War even as bilateral trade issues were making headlines.
Long known as a maverick, Junichiro Koizumi also went his own way when George W. Bush visited Japan in 2002.
Before their formal summit, Koizumi took Bush to Meiji Shrine for a display of “yabusame,” in which archers on horseback in warrior attire fire arrows at a target while at full gallop.
Instead of a formal state dinner, Koizumi also treated Bush and his wife, Laura, to what legions of Japanese salaried workers do after working hours. They dined at an “izakaya” Japanese-style pub.
(This article was written by Nen Satomi, Ryutaro Abe and Shino Matsuyama.)