Later this week, Michiko, the ultra-elegant Empress Emeritus of Japan, will celebrate her 88th birthday, and in her honor, we’re devoting this week’s Sparkling Spotlight series to some of her most gorgeous tiara moments. Up first: a visit to the White House in 1960 in modern diamonds and pearls.
In September 1960, a year and a half after their grand royal wedding in Tokyo, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan embarked on an important and sensitive foreign diplomatic trip. They left their infant son, Prince Naruhito, behind in Tokyo and traveled to the United States for a lengthy visit that took them to Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Portland, and Seattle. Fifteen years after the end of World War II, though the two countries had worked hard to mend their diplomatic fences, a planned trip to Tokyo by President Eisenhower had been canceled that June amid rising tensions.
Akihito and Michiko worked hard to prepare for the visit, taking part in an educational course that would ready them to be effective ambassadors during the trip. Both had visited America before, but this was their first trip together as a married couple. Akihito reportedly told a friend that he felt “a heavy responsibility” to make the visit a success. Michiko was concerned, too. “This will be my first official visit abroad,” she told an Associated Press reporter before their departure, “and I’m very worried about it.”
The careful preparations that the couple had made for their trip paid off. They charmed their hosts throughout the visit, including Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, who hosted a state dinner for their guests at the White House on September 27. They’re posed together here in their evening attire before the banquet. On behalf of his father, Crown Prince Akihito bestowed the Order of the Chrysanthemum on President Eisenhower ahead of the dinner. Akihito also wore the Chrysanthemum insignia, while Michiko wore the sash and star of the Order of the Precious Crown.
The press in Washington were impressed with Michiko’s choice of dress for the event: a fashionable strapless evening gown that mixed together elements of traditional Japanese clothing and Western style. Daisy Cleland, a staff writer for the Washington Evening Star, noted that “The material and detail were Japanese but the mode was Western,” adding that the fabric of the dress was described as “waves of gold against a silver background” or, more romantically, “from sunrise to twilight.” The material for the dress was reportedly sourced from Tatsumura.
Michiko posed elegantly with Mrs. Eisenhower before the banquet, but the strain of the lengthy tour had already begun to take a major toll on the crown princess. She’d had to take numerous breaks during several public appearances and even stayed back in the couple’s guest accommodations during part of the visit to Washington. The press took notice when she left the White House state dinner earlier than planned. One person connected with the American side of the planning for the trip told a reporter, “Mostly she’s just tired.” Another added, “It’s fatigue, I’m sure. You know how these visits are. But for heaven’s sake, don’t quote me.”
Interestingly, Ruth Buchanan, wife of the Chief of Protocol of the United States, pointed to one specific problem experienced by Michiko during the state dinner. “Her tiara was so heavy it gave her a headache,” Mrs. Buchanan explained, adding, “She had never worn it before.” The tiara in question was the grand Pearl Sunburst Tiara, a modern sparkler set with dazzling diamonds and pearls. This was apparently Michiko’s debut in the tiara, which is part of a parure that also includes a coordinating necklace and brooch. Michiko also wore both of those pieces with her state dinner attire.
Here’s an excellent view of all of the pieces from the set, worn in October 2014 by Michiko’s daughter-in-law, Empress Masako, for a state dinner during the Dutch state visit to Japan. The suite has a bit of an Art Deco flair to its design.
Crown Princess Michiko would go on to wear the sunburst tiara often in the ensuing years before handing it over in the 1990s to Masako. Notably, Michiko wore it for another encounter with an American president: a state dinner in Tokyo during a visit by the Reagans in November 1983.