``You see that weeping birch tree?'' said Princess Michiko of Japan, pointing to a magnificent birch with long trailing branches across her lawn. The group of American journalists she was talking to crowded near the glass doors through which the princess was pointing.
``You know, we planted that tree from a seed we brought home from America in 1960. President Eisenhower was our host then. Now look how big it has grown.''
Crown Prince Akihito, the heir to the Japanese throne, and Princess Michiko had invited the journalists to a small reception and concert before their departure for the United States. They arrive in Boston tomorrow to begin a week-long visit to the US.
Like the birch tree, Japanese-American relations have grown both in size and in complexity since the early postwar years. Some people may feel that royalty is out of place in the relationship, since a kind of mass participatory democracy is the rule both in the US and Japan.
But when relations between two countries are going through a rough patch, there is nothing like a royal visit to soothe tensions and to remind people of the ties that bind. For months on end, newspaper headlines have screamed about trade frictions, even about a trade war. People talk of Japan-bashing and America-bashing.
Yet trade is only one aspect of a long, eventful, and, on the whole, happy relationship between two countries facing each other across the Pacific. Akihito and Michiko's visit will emphasize the continuity of the relationship, which echoes, in a way, the continuity of the imperial family as the center of the Japanese people's affections.
The imperial couple will be feted at a glittering White House reception by the Reagans. They will dine with the Rockefellers in New York. On Sunday, in Fairhaven, Mass., they will get a whiff of everyday America.
Fairhaven is as good an example as any of the continuity of Japanese-American ties. Back in the 1840's, when Japan was a feudal land ruled by two-sworded samurai and tightly closed to the outside world, a sea captain from Fairhaven named William Whitfield picked up a little group of Japanese fishermen who had been shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island in the Pacific. He took most of them to Hawaii. But the youngest, Manjiro, accompanied him home to Fairhaven, where he was treated as a foster son.
Manjiro returned to Japan as a young man and eventually helped to transform his country from a state of feudal isolation to one of openness to Western science and institutions.
The imperial couple will be welcomed by Whitfield's descendants in Fairhaven, as well as by Manjiro's grandson, a doctor in Nagoya, Japan.
Akihito's own life symbolizes the vast changes that have taken place in Japan during the past half century. When Akihito was born in l933, his father, the Emperor Hirohito, was considered a living god, and the nation was under the rule of saber-rattling militarists.
Akihito was 8 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, 11 when Japan surrendered. A new Constitution, drafted by American occupation authorities, defined the emperor as a symbol of state, not as a sacred being.
Akihito, coming to manhood, married a commoner, Michiko Shoda.
The imperial couple's links to the US have been especially close. Not only have they traveled there, they have both had American tutors while in high school.
Akihito's teacher was a devout Quaker and author from Philadelphia. From her, the crown prince learned not just a language but a way of thinking, some of the moral values that underpin American democracy.
Akihito and Michiko have tried to give their three children a home atmosphere as close to normal family life as possible. Unlike Akihito himself, who was separated from his parents at an early age, the imperial children have remained at home.
Akihito himself is known to want to lead a less cloistered existence than long tradition has forced on Emperor Hirohito.
Emperor Hirohito's recent illness has forced the couple to telescope into one week a tour that was to have taken three. Sources in their entourage do not conceal their hope that this visit will help to uncover the latent goodwill on both sides.