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President’s remarks recall rice candy and Hawaii friends

  • left
    President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle Obama, greet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe as they arrive at the North Portico of the White House for a state dinner, Tuesday, in Washington.
  • at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

  • President Barack Obama introduced Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
  • Tuesday

President Obama brought up memories of growing up in Hawaii and eating Tomoe Ame rice candy in his remarks during the traditional toast during Wednesday night’s state dinner at the White House for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“This morning I mentioned the Japanese Americans who were such important friends and parts of my community in my youth in Hawaii.  And tonight, I’m thinking about one of them in particular — a man who called himself Freddy who ran a small market near our house.  And he became great friend of my grandfather’s.  And part of the reason he was such a great friend is because he saved us the best cuts of tuna and toro for for sashimi and then he’s also slip in some rice candy with edible wrappers, which was fascinating to me as a child,” Obama said. “And they were small gestures, but they always remained with me as an example of how Japanese culture was woven into my upbringing, and spoke to the ties of friendship and family that bring us here together tonight.”

The toast featured sake from Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi in Japan and Obama reading 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.”).

The first guests to arrive at Tuesday’s White House state dinner were Hawaii Gov. David Ige and his wife, Dawn. “I probably had to travel the farthest to get here,” he laughed. 

Asked about his chopstick skills before the Japan-themed feast, Ige said, “I’m really good at chopsticks.” His wife said they’d be willing to help out anyone needing pointers.

Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono attended the dinner and, along with Hawaii Rep. Mark Takai, escorted Abe into the House chamber to deliver his address to a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday morning. 

“I was born in Japan and lived there until I was nearly eight years old,” Hirono said. “Our countries have much to offer one another and we must focus on continuing our enduring relationship and strengthening that relationship to meet our shared challenges.” 

Hirono is the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She was born in Fukushima, Japan.

The guest chef Tuesday night was Masaharu Morimoto, of TV’s “Iron Chef” fame. He worked 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.

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

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.

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