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November, 2004

An Emperor, Abe Lincoln, and Four Presidents

by George Takei

LOS ANGELES - It came with no advance notice. The phone rang. I picked up the receiver. It was the Vice Consul of Japan in Los Angeles, Yuko Kaifu, calling to inform me that I was to be honored by the Government of Japan. I was to be granted the Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays and Rosette at an audience with His Majesty, Emperor Akihito, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. I was stunned! Out of the clear blue sky, with no forewarning, I, an American, was not only going to be given an international recognition by the Government of Japan, but granted an audience with the Emperor! I must have stammered some clumsy words of appreciation and hung up. I was so shocked I can't clearly remember what I said.

It still seemed like a dream as I flew over the white cotton clouds of the Pacific on my way to Tokyo. The letter from the Consul General of Japan's office that followed the phone call said the decoration was for my years of promoting U.S.-Japan relations. It said that my service with the Japanese American Citizens' League, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission as President Bill Clinton's appointee, the Japan-U.S Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange, and my work with the Japanese American National Museum were appreciated, recognized, and honored by the Government of Japan. All those activities could surely be considered altruistic public service but they also integrated my pride in my Japanese ancestry with my American nationality. Most of all, I enjoyed being engaged with and contributing to all of those activities. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would be flying to Tokyo to be granted a decoration by the Emperor of Japan in the Imperial Palace for activities I enjoyed and found personally engaging.

The street alongside the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace is the favorite running route for runners in central Tokyo. It's the longest stretch without a cross street. I have run it often when I've been in Tokyo. On this occasion, however, I was going across the bridge over the moat onto the Palace grounds. There were dignitaries from many other countries who were also being honored. I chatted briefly with honorees from Canada, Australia, Brazil, Pakistan, and Mexico among many others who were gathered on the palace grounds. Three of us were Americans, one from St. Louis and two from Los Angeles. Staff from the Imperial Household, wearing somewhat Napoleonic looking coats with double rows of gold buttons down the front, were everywhere answering questions, giving directions, and organizing us.

We were lined up in formation and escorted up the grand staircase to the Imperial Audience Hall. If Japanese minimalism could be described as grandly elegant, this room had to be it. Two sides of the vast room were horizontal shoji screens. Both end walls were entirely covered by woven tapestry with only a pale hint of pastel clouds in the design. About a half-dozen crystal chandeliers of contemporary design hung from the ceiling. In the center of the room was a low, carpeted platform. There was no other furnishing. A man in a gold-buttoned coat announced the Grand Chamberlain and an extraordinarily tall, slim, imperious-looking man stepped forward. He wore a formal swallowtail coat. He instructed, in softly commanding tones, the procedure that was to be followed in the ceremony. Gold-buttoned staffers quietly sidled up to those who did not understand Japanese to whisper translations into their ears.

We were told when the Emperor would make his entrance, how we were to bow, when we were to bow, how often and how long we were to hold our bows. Then he stepped away and grandly announced the entrance of His Majesty, the Emperor. Silently, seemingly automatically, the shoji screen slid open. It revealed a magnificent garden with a placid lake. I could see the Emperor walking down the veranda as he approached the opened shoji screen. We all bowed in unison as instructed. We rose when he entered the audience hall. He too was dressed formally in a swallowtail coat. There were a few more bows as he stepped up onto the low dais. We bowed again before he began to speak. In contrast to the Grand Chamberlain, the Emperor's voice was warm, affable, and somewhat high pitched. He maintained a gracious smile throughout. He thanked all of us for the services we had rendered in promoting friendship between our nations and Japan and wished us good fortune in our future endeavors. With those simple congratulatory words, he stepped down and smilingly passed in review before us. The opposite shoji screens noiselessly slid open. The Emperor turned at the opened screens, smiled and nodded back to us. We again bowed down in unison. When we rose up, we could see him regally walking away down the veranda.

That evening and for another day after, friends and relatives in Japan celebrated this extraordinary honor for me with every meal. They wanted to see and touch the splendid medal that I had received. One very busy friend could join me only for a late night drink after work. As he toasted me in the rooftop lounge of the Imperial Hotel overlooking Tokyo, the lights of the city seemed to be sparkling in happy celebration with us. If only my parents could have lived to share these moments with me, I thought. How complete this honor would have been.

I had to cut my stay in Tokyo short because I had a professional engagement scheduled in Honolulu, Hawaii. The location was as if it had been perfectly pre-planned - half way back from Tokyo to Los Angeles. I had been engaged to narrate Aaron Copeland's "Lincoln Portrait" with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra on Veterans' Day Weekend at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. The concert itself seemed as if it had been perfectly pre-arranged for this Japanese American - an American note to follow a decoration from the Government of Japan. This Veterans' Day concert in Honolulu was celebrating a great American President and honoring all those throughout history who had fought for our democracy.

The singularly American music of a groundbreaking American composer with the immortal words of a great American President, Abraham Lincoln - and I had the honor of speaking them. It was one honor following another - one Japanese and this one, American. The concert with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra was a great popular success and I received laudatory reviews. Of course, there were the Star Trek fans who crowded around the dressing room door for autographs after the concert. The flight back to Los Angeles felt like floating on the proverbial cloud nine.

My stay back in Los Angeles, however, had to be abbreviated. Two nights in my own bed and I was off again to another hotel bed - this time in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was the opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park. This is the official name of the President Bill Clinton Library. I was off to help celebrate this exciting and historic occasion.

I remembered the excitement of my flight to Bill Clinton's first inauguration back in January of 1993. We arrived in Washington D.C. to a gray, overcast sky. But, on the morning of the inauguration, the sum broke through and gave the new President from Arkansas a crisp, bright, golden inauguration. I called it, "the luck of Clinton." There was the sense of a new beginning with new ideas and new energy. There was optimism in the crisp inaugural air for the future of America.

Indeed, Bill Clinton's two-term presidency was filled with extraordinary achievements. The fresh initiatives and reforms he brought to government transformed the nation. Despite all the turbulence during his tenure, he left the nation with a surplus. Mindful of his human weaknesses, I am still a Bill Clinton admirer. He gave me the opportunity to serve on the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, an independent Federal agency. He invited me to my first State Dinner at the White House. Bill Clinton was the President who corrected a grievous oversight of over a half-century by honoring 19 Japanese American veterans of Word War II with the highest military recognition the nation can grant, the Medal of Honor. Among those 19 veterans is the U.S. Senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm on a bloody battlefield in Italy.

The Clinton Presidential Center is the repository, museum, and library of the records of his presidency. I am a part of the content of the Center and had contributed financially to the building as well. I feel I am a part of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center.

I arrived in Little Rock excited as well as with a sense of history. The sky was gray and overcast - again, just as it was on his first inauguration. I assured everybody, "Don't worry. There's the luck of Clinton."

The morning of the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center was still gray and overcast. But I could see a patch of blue in the sky far to the south. Pointing it out to the people gathered for the opening, I reassured them, "Look over there. There's the luck of Clinton approaching." Alas, the tiny blue patch of sky drifted off in the opposite direction chased away by the ominously black rain clouds. Even before the program began, it started to rain. It was cold, icy rain. We were not only wet when the program began but visibly shivering under our ponchos. Then the rocker, Bono, began to sing. We didn't need to hear him howl out at us, "When the rain came, when the rain came…" We knew. We were sitting in the pouring rain, wet and freezing. It got so cold we thought we were in danger of hypothermia. The four Presidents, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton were yet to be introduced. It would be an extraordinary moment - four presidents all in the same place at the same time. But, we couldn't take the cold any longer. We fled back to the hotel to watch them introduced on television. The four presidents smiled bravely but we knew how uncomfortable they must have been. They were good soldiers. They all showed themselves to be extraordinary people. Their collective grace, humor, warmth, and eloquent mutual respect made us all feel proud to be Americans. The four men truly are presidential. We applauded all four U.S. Presidents from the warmth and cozy comfort of our hotel.

The gala reception the night before in the Presidential Center that preceded the opening, however, was a glittering affair. The new building glowed in celebratory lights. Fireworks exploded like exotic flowers in the darkened Arkansas sky. There were political luminaries everywhere. I spotted Leon Panetta, Joe Lockhart, and Paul Begala from the Clinton administration; George Stephanopoulos and Geraldo Rivera from the media; Howard Dean from the presidential primaries; and Jessie Jackson, former California governor, Gray Davis, and the former Mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer were among the celebrants. It was rumored that Brad Pitt and Barbra Streisand were also there but I didn't see them. I really didn't need to see Bono to have him sing to us the coming of the rain. It was a dazzling and rainless opening reception.

The Presidential Center is a magnificent museum overlooking the Arkansas River on one side and a sensitively restored historic structure, the Old Choctaw Railroad Station, which is now the Clinton School of Public Service, on the opposite side. It also contains the library for researchers as well as the repository of the papers from the Clinton years. The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center is a new landmark of Little Rock and a proud center of learning and inspiration to build a better future for America.

 

 



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