The state visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan testifies to the growing importance of the American-Japanese relationship. It is not the White House making this point, but the Chrysanthemum Throne. The visit is Japan's gesture, and the audience to whom it is aimed is the Japanese people back home.
While the ceremonial tour helps in healing passions that remain from World War II, this is no great breakthrough. Akihito and Michiko are modern people who have been to this country six times previously. His father, the Emperor Hirohito, received White House hospitality in 1976 from President Ford. That was the breakthrough. Old passions also linger; the royal couple must skip Pearl Harbor while in Hawaii for fear that expressing regret would alienate unreconstructed militarists among Japan's elderly population.
This visit comes at a critical time in Japanese-American relations, when tempers are frayed over trade, when American firms are determined to crack the Japanese market and not convinced the playing field is level, when Japanese-American agreement on the nuclear danger in North Korea is both essential and elusive.
This visit is also a reversal in the image-making of the Clinton administration. For the first year in office, the Clintons held no state dinners. Theirs was to be the domestic presidency, in contrast to the Bush administration which had invited the Japanese emperor. Mr. Clinton wanted to be seen as caring for the concerns of his fellow ordinary Americans. White tie did not fit. A visiting president would be fobbed off with an official dinner (black tie), not a state dinner (white tie).
Of course, you can't go halfway with the Emperor of Japan, who therefore had to wait a year. As British planners know, Americans are secret royalty buffs. Not that Queen Elizabeth is old shoe, but Akihito and Michiko are even more exotic.
White-tie role-playing must have been a welcome and elevating respite for the Clintons. Now that they have got the hang of the thing, they will probably do it more. It is a fantasy escape from the grubby real world of Washington politics. And they are good at it.