With hand on heart, Donald Trump listened while Japan’s Self-Defense Forces band belted out the Star-Spangled Banner, before the U.S. President joined Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to inspect an honor guard in front of Tokyo’s neo-Baroque Akasaka Palace. It was yet another red carpet privilege bestowed on the former reality television star, whose susceptibility to flattery will be mercilessly probed throughout his 12-day, five-nation Asian tour.
Yet it bodes ill for regional leaders looking to ingratiate themselves to Trump that his patience is already wavering on this, his first stop. Invited by Abe to take part in a traditional koi carp feeding ceremony, Trump flung big clumps at the fish before emptying his whole box of pellets into the water. Still, the two leaders emerged from a series of bilateral meetings singing each other’s praises and vowing a united front to counter North Korean aggression.
“There has never been such a close relationship between the leaders of two countries,” Trump said, describing Japan as “a very special place.” He added that both men were “working to counter the dangerous aggression of the regime in North Korea,” which he called “a threat to the civilized world.”
“The era of strategic patience is over,” he said. “Some say my rhetoric is strong, but look what’s happened with weak rhetoric over the past 25 years.”
It was a job well done for Abe, who had gone to enormous lengths to cement a rosy bilateral relationship. Upon Trump’s arrival, Abe presented him with white baseball hats bearing the slogan “Donald & Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater” in a nod to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Given Trump’s aversion to sushi, the two leaders supped on hamburgers made with American beef — shunning Japan’s own wagyu variety, considered among the best in the world — although they did enjoy a traditional Japanese dinner with the first ladies later Sunday evening.
Trump maybe a political neophyte, but his host is a wily operator. He was the first world leader to meet Trump after his election victory and did again shortly after he took office. Exploiting a shared love of golf, Abe presented Trump with a $3,500 gold-plated driver in November, and they played nine holes with top Japanese pro Hideki Matsuyama under clear blue skies at Kasumigaseki Country Club just hours after Trump touched down on Sunday. “I believe there has never been as close bonds” between the two nations, Abe told journalists after their bilateral meeting Monday, hailing “the unshakable Japan-U.S. alliance.”
Japanese unease over Trump’s handling of East Asia’s metastasizing security situation was a key fact that allowed Abe to bounce back from seemingly untenable doldrums earlier this year following a series of corruption scandals. Abe’s bromance with Trump, compounded by an opposition in meltdown, convinced voters that he was the best candidate to chart the world’s third biggest economy forward, despite a woeful personal approval rating. Abe returned to power after Oct. 22 snap elections with a two-thirds legislative “supermajority” and is on course to become Japan’s longest-serving postwar Prime Minister. North Korea’s belligerence and Trump’s questioning of the East Asian alliance early in his term also helped push Abe’s signature policy goals of reforming Japan’s U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution. There is also growing, if still fringe, talk of developing its own nuclear weapons.
But while Abe’s coddling of Trump is self-serving, leaders across the region appreciate his efforts at schooling the U.S. President on the nitty-gritty of regional diplomacy. “Abe is trying to convince Trump that America is better off pursuing multilateral approaches to Asia that strengthens America, in terms of dealing with China’s hegemonic regional ambitions,” Prof. Jeffery Kingston, a director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan. “Washington is punching way below its weight in the region due to policy drift under Trump.”
Still, the leaders have some way to go on the issue of trade. Japan has become the chief proponent of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact after Trump nixed American involvement on his first day in office. Trump wants a bilateral free trade deal with Japan, which has a $68.9 billion trade surplus with the U.S. During the election campaign he slammed Japan and South Korea for not sharing enough of the financial burden for America’s military presence. He then accused Japan of being a currency manipulator — a charge he has also leveled at China.
Speaking to business leaders Monday morning, Trump said, “We want fair and open trade but right now our trade with Japan is not fair and it’s not open.”
So it makes sense for Abe to guide discussion toward North Korea, whose escalating nuclear and missile tests are a growing worry in Japan. North Korea lobbed two missiles over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in late September and early October, and defense drills are now part of local preparedness training. “Now is not the time for dialogue but applying maximum pressure on North Korea,” said Abe, who introduced Trump to the families of Japanese abducted by the North Korean regime.
“They were used to learn the language, they were used for many different reasons,” said Trump. “It’s a tremendous disgrace. I’ve met some really wonderful people who have gone through a lot.”
Trump also expressed condolences for the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting at a church in a rural South Texas that claimed 26 lives, which he described as “an act of evil.” Asked whether it was time to consider stricter gun control, Trump replied that “Mental health is your problem here.”
“We have a lot of mental health problems. This isn’t a guns situation,” he said. “Thankfully someone else had a gun shooting in the other direction,” he added, saying that otherwise the tragedy would have been much worse.