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Remembering the Past: Longmont visited by Emperor and Empress of Japan

The quiet Imperial visit was due to Longmont's Japanese-American community.

In June of 1994, Emperor Ahikito and Empress Michiko of Japan made a two week visit to the United States. The Japanese Imperial family made the expected stops on their visit, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and a visit with President Bill Clinton in Washington, D.C. 

The unexpected stop for the Emperor and Empress was a three day stay in Longmont, Colorado at the home of real estate developers Ken and Susan Pratt. A headline from the Boulder Daily Camera June 17, 1994 — just a day prior to the Imperial arrival — noted “Many Boulder County residents unimpressed by imperial visit.” The article notes skepticism about Longmont as the choice for the destination, or even mistrust due to trade relations between the U.S. and Japan at the time, but mostly just a lack of awareness.

Japanese-American journalist and civil rights advocate Bill Hosokawa, who wrote for the Denver Post and taught journalism at the University of Colorado, proved the key to the Imperial visit to Longmont. His connections to the Japanese-American community and businesses, as well as prominent members of Longmont like the Pratts helped guide the Imperial visit.

Hosokawa also served as Honorary Consul General of Japan in Denver from 1974 to 1979 and was active in the Japanese American Citizens League in both Washington and Colorado. By 1994, Hosokawa was working with the Economic Development Alliance of Longmont in an advisory capacity.

“Bill was such a lovely person, and because we knew him well and had worked together, when
(the visit) came up Bill immediately thought of Longmont,” said former Longmont Mayor Leona Stoecker.

Stoecker remembers the Imperial visit, from the very beginning of her mayoral term, with sincere fondness. Stoecker spoke of the connections that were strengthened with the Japanese-American community, as well as in Longmont’s sister city of 30 years, Chino, Japan. A vase from the Japanese Emperor has a place of honor displayed prominently in her house. Friends and strangers still send her photos they’ve found of the visit, from personal collections or taken from around Boulder or Longmont.

In Hosokawa’s book, Colorado’s Japanese Americans, he recalled the preparations for the Imperial visit started long before the trip to the U.S. began. The Emperor and Empress were looking for some place quiet and private, with easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park. The whole visit was intended to be a relaxing stopover during the two week tour of the U.S.

Someone in the Japanese Consulate suggested a private residence, something unheard of on any of the Imperial couples prior international travels. Hosokawa asked Ken and Susan Pratt if they would give up their house for a few days to an important Japanese couple. The Pratts agreed, though it would still be months before the visit would happen.

“In January 1994, I received a call from the Japanese Consul General’s office in San Francisco saying that they were coming to Longmont for a visit,” Stoecker said. “I jokingly said ‘Oh maybe they're coming for a visit with the Emperor and Empress,’ because that was as far from anything we could imagine.”

According to Hosokawa’s book, the Consulate General’s advance party looked at homes in Denver and Boulder before finally deciding on the Pratt home. It wasn’t until secret service agents came to inspect the home directly did the Pratts learn who their important guests would be.

“I remember being in a meeting in Denver of area elected officials and someone said they’d heard the Imperials were coming somewhere but assumed it was to Boulder,” Stoecker said. “I just kept quiet about it.”

In a press release from Stoecker’s office on May 27, 1994 announcing the visit, Stoecker acknowledged Hosokawa’s efforts in bringing the Imperial visitors to town, along with the presence of prominent Japanese residents and the then-new Sister City relationship with Chino, Japan as prominent factors leading to the choice.

“What an honor and unforgettable event to have the Royal Couple come and stay in Longmont. I am also pleased that Longmont will be in the world news,” Longmont developer Jimmie Kanemoto said in the same press release.

Jimmie Kanemoto’s grandfather, Goroku Kanemoto, moved to Longmont in 1919 to farm sugar beets. Though Goroku died in 1935 in an automobile accident, Jimmie and his family kept the family and eventually bought the land. The Kanemotos started the Kane Manufacturing and Supply Company and eventually built the Southmoor Park neighborhood in Longmont. The Kanemotos donated the land they farmed in 1966, which is now Kanemoto Park. 

The expense of the visit caused some controversy at the time, according to Stoecker. A memorandum from June 3, 1994 from City Manager Gordon Pedrow to the mayor and city council listed expenses totalling $5,455. Those included brochures, gifts, banners, lapel pins and overtime pay for staff. The cost of the visit came out of the city council contingency fund and the asphalt overlay of Panorama Circle caused some rescheduling of other city projects to accommodate the Imperial visit.

“In addition to the expenditures listed above, the asphalt overlay of the public portion of the east end of Panorama Circle is also being considered. This project would cost approximately $5,000 but it is a budgeted project,” Pedrow said in the June 3, 1994 memo. “It would be a reprioritization of the project to undertake it at this time. If the mayor and the city council feel it is appropriate to perform a two-inch overlay to match the existing concrete on the private section of Panorama Circle then this project could be done.”

Accompanying the Imperial visit were dozens of members from the Japanese and U.S. media, along with Japanese dignitaries. The whole Imperial visit was also protected by the U.S. Secret Service. Some dignitaries stayed near the Pratt house, while other visitors stayed at the Raintree Plaza Hotel in Longmont, which has since closed.

“We lived just around the corner from the Pratts at the time, and our whole street became very involved,” Stoecker said. “We even had some street work done, which caused some issues. But you could have eaten off that street.”

Stoecker wrote a letter to the Times-Call prior to the visit, encouraging Longmont residents and businesses to make sure the city was well-kept and clean prior to the Imperial visit.

“During those days when visitors and their cameras will be everywhere, we, Longmont residents, will have a rare opportunity to showcase our beautiful community,” Stoecker said in the editorial. “Before then, I urge individual citizens to look around their homes and make sure things are in order. Neighbors can get together too, to clean up their areas while also getting better acquainted and having fun.”

By the time the Emperor and Empress arrived, Longmont was well-prepared. While there was no public ceremony held during the brief Imperial visit, a formal welcoming ceremony and reception line was held at the Pratt residence. The decision for no formal, public ceremony with the Imperial Couple was at the direction of the Imperial aides, to give the Emperor and Empress a moment of quiet relaxation among pomp and circumstance.

The Pratts, Stoeckers and Hosokawas, along with their children, grandchildren and other members of city government and prominent residents like the Kanemotos were flanking the gates and driveway of the residence when the Japanese delegation arrived. The children and grandchildren of the mayor and council members serenaded the Emperor and Empress with a traditional Japanese folk song, “Sakura,” an ode to cherry blossoms.

“We had the most amazing people in our staff at the city and to get cherry blossoms in June is not easy but they managed,” Stoecker said. “Our little granddaughter gave the Emperor a basket of cherry blossoms, it was really an exciting time.”

The Imperial Couple spent the next day visiting Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. That evening, the Imperial Couple hosted a dinner at the Flagstaff House in Boulder for the Pratts, Stoeckers and other dignitaries, including the Kanemotos and Hosokawas. Among the documents and artifacts in Leona Stoecker’s archives is a copy of the tasting menu from the dinner at the Flagstaff. 

The Emperor and Empress spent their third day in Denver, with a reception for 500 Japanese-Americans at the Brown Palace Hotel, followed by a luncheon hosted by Governor Roy Romer. The Emperor and Empress of Japan left Colorado to continue their trip and the legacy of the trip would live on in newspaper archives, books and the memories of those in attendance.

The Pratt residence is still on Panorama Circle, though the Pratts no longer live there. Ken Pratt passed away from cancer in 1995, and Susan Pratt lives a private life. The current owner, Jason Vallery, purchased the Pratt residence this year. 

Vallery grew up in Longmont, and professes a deep passion for the town’s history but the Imperial visit and Ken Pratt’s legacy weren’t motivation for buying the house. Vallery and his family, including his in-laws, are moving into the house to take advantage of the size in combining three generations under one roof.

“I recognize that the house is very ostentatious,” Vallery said. “It’s perhaps my least favorite thing about it.”

The house still has some artifacts of the Pratt history in town and the Imperial visit. The backyard still has a Japanese garden, though somewhat in need of maintenance and Vallery found a slew of Times-Call photo negatives that have already been scanned by the Longmont Museum. 

“I would argue the ability to secure the place must have been a primary reason they chose this house for the Emperor’s visit, with nine foot stone walls around the property,” Vallery said. “One of the artifacts I inherited with the house are cameras that the Secret Service installed in 1994 and they are still there.”