Guest house

Japan state guesthouse silently awaits return of VIPs

TOKYO – The grounds of Akasaka Palace are empty here at a time of the year usually full of tourists, as the gates remain closed to both high profile visitors and everyday tourists.

While the closure is a precaution amid the coronavirus outbreak, the State Guest House’s downtime is being used to renovate the lavish building and add new features, in preparation for the eventual return of guests.

The neo-baroque structure, inspired by the Palace of Versailles in Paris, is located at the end of a path delimited by rows of tulip trees. Rooms at the State Guest House, known as Geihinkan in Japan, have fallen silent amid the pandemic.

Akasaka Palace had prepared for a busy spring, including welcoming a high profile visitor. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is expected to arrive in April, is said to have attended a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the State Guest House, which is also reportedly providing accommodation for Xi. A forward team from China completed the inspections in February.

The palace was built in 1909, during the Meiji era. This period, when Japan became the first country in the region to achieve modernity, aroused the keen interest of other Asian leaders.

When Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan visited Akasaka Palace last October, he was informed that the palace was celebrating the 110th anniversary of its construction in 1909.

“It’s three years before the end of the Meiji era,” Wang replied without missing a beat.

The coronavirus prompted the postponement of Xi’s first visit to the State Guest House, which has been closed to the public since the end of March. On the site, the calendar of public openings for this month is festooned with x.

Akasaka Palace was originally built as the residence of the Crown Prince. Chandeliers weighing 800 kg adorn the interior, as well as gold leaf patterns.

The construction cost 5.1 million yen, which equates to about $ 1 billion in today’s money. The lavish spending hints at Japan’s eagerness to take its place alongside the powers of Western Europe.

800kg chandeliers hang inside the state guesthouse. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

After World War II, ownership was transferred from the Imperial Household to the State. Akasaka Palace served as the legislative library, judicial impeachment court, and the seat of the organizing committee for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The government decided to permanently transform the palace into a state guesthouse in 1967, during the latter part of Japan’s booming period.

“There are few countries that do not have state guest houses, despite the number of state guests received,” said Takeshi Usami, then Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Agency, in 1965.

The palace assumed its current role in 1974, welcoming then-US President Gerald Ford as its first guest, followed by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. It hosted the three Group of Seven summits held in Tokyo and, in 2013, hosted a banquet for observers from the International Olympic Committee during the capital’s Olympic bid.

The facility welcomes foreign dignitaries on state visits – the highest level of formality – as well as official visits, the next step, unless guests request otherwise. It can also be used for official working visits upon request, but not for working visits or travel to international meetings.

The State Guest House has seen fewer guests in recent years. During a state visit by US President Donald Trump last year, a welcoming ceremony and working lunch were held at the palace, but Trump stayed in a hotel. Predecessor Barack Obama also opted for a hotel during his 2014 trip.

Akasaka Palace was the site of many diplomatic events. © Kyodo

Akasaka Palace “has few rooms,” a foreign ministry official said. “When countries send too many people for everyone to stay there, they use upscale hotels instead.”

Keeping the entire delegation in one hotel makes it easier to deal with any eventualities that might arise, according to the representative. The proliferation of luxury hotels with state-of-the-art amenities in Tokyo is also a factor.

Despite the change, nine of Japan’s 15 state guests over the past decade have stayed at the palace. Six were from Asian countries, including Singapore and Vietnam. According to the Cabinet Office, which oversees the State Guest House, Asian countries are taking a keen interest in it as a symbol of successful modernization.

Japan has recently used the palace as the face of the nation for tourists as well as for dignitaries. It began opening to the year-round public in 2016 under the auspices of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who called it “significant as a symbol of our becoming a tourism-driven country.”

The government’s Future Investment Strategy 2018 called for building new facilities near the main entrance, with information in multiple languages ​​on areas closed to the public. The building is almost finished and close to opening.

Now, with the flow of visitors cut off, construction noise can be heard from time to time in the State Guest House as the lull is used as an opportunity to repair areas of the walls and ceiling that have deteriorated over the years. over the past 111 years. .

“We are preparing for the post-coronavirus,” said Masachika Kusaka, general manager of the establishment.

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