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State dinner brings together cultures of U.S., Japan

Different varieties of Japanese petit four selections, part of the dessert course are displayed during a preview of the table settings and china for Tuesday's State Dinner hosted by President Barack Obama for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Monday, April 27, 2015, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) DCJM110
Different varieties of Japanese petit four selections, part of the dessert course are displayed during a preview of the table settings and china for Tuesday's State Dinner hosted by President Barack Obama for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Monday, April 27, 2015, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) DCJM110
Published Apr. 29, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's state dinner for the prime minister of Japan offered guests a new chef, new china and the specter of chopsticks — a daunting challenge for some nervous newcomers, no big deal to others.

The president welcomed guest of honor Shinzo Abe with a toast over sake that included a haiku about spring and friendship.

Abe, in return, went with R&B.

He quoted the song Ain't No Mountain High Enough to convey the strength of the bonds between the United States and Japan.

First lady Michelle Obama found another way to pay tribute to the guest nation, wearing a purple sleeveless gown by Japanese-born designer Tadashi Shoji.

With fewer than 200 guests, it was Obama's smallest state dinner, and it had a decidedly low celebrity quotient.

Star Trek luminary George Takei was back 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.

Asked about her chopstick skills, Rhimes waggled her hand uncertainly. Takei, by contrast, said he'd grown up with chopsticks.

Takei's husband, Brad, wondered what the big deal was.

"Is that exotic for the White House?" he asked.

Anyway, no worries: There was flatware for those wanting to play it safe.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson turned up with R&B singer Ciara, fresh off attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner over the weekend with his grandmother.

"She's back in Virginia," Wilson said of his grandmother. His new date, for her part, took plenty of time to arrange her gown just so — twice — for the cameras.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who also served as ambassador to Japan, arrived at the White House in the role of seasoned veteran of state dinners.

Asked how many he had attended, Mondale mused, "I'm not sure. Thirty?"

"When I was vice president, I had to go," he confessed.

Guest chef Masaharu Morimoto, of TV's Iron Chef fame, and the White House culinary team served up a meal fusing American and Japanese influences: Think Caesar salad tied up with Mizuhiki paper cord. American Wagyu beef. And cheesecake — made with tofu and soy milk.

As with every state dinner, it was all part of a carefully laid plan to promote friendly relations between the U.S. president and the leader of the guest country. That would be Abe, who joked at a Tuesday luncheon that he dared not overdo the drinking at dinner because he's addressing a joint meeting of Congress today.

Even the after-dinner entertainment was aimed at bringing together the two cultures. Cast members from the film adaptation of Jersey Boys were performing selections from the jukebox musical, which was popular in Japan.

The White House state dinner has become an especially rare commodity under this president: This is just the eighth state dinner for Obama over more than six years in office.

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