U.S. President Donald Trump arrives in Japan on Saturday for a four-day trip likely to be dominated by warm words and friendly images, but little insight into substantial progress on trade.
Japanese and US officials hail Trump’s relationship with his “golf buddy” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “unprecedented”, and the couple will once again find time for a round to cement their diplomatic bromance.
The official centerpiece is Trump’s meeting on Monday with the new Japanese Emperor Naruhito, who only ascended the Chrysanthemum throne earlier this month after his father’s historic abdication for health reasons.
“Along with every country in the world, I am the guest of honor at the biggest event they have had in over 200 years,” Trump said before he left.
But the visual highlight is more likely to be Trump’s visit on Sunday to the last day of the summer “basho” or sumo tournament where he is expected to hand over the cup to the winner.
Trump’s appearance in the sacred sumo hall presented a logistical, security, and protocol nightmare, ranging from where he sits to how he should be protected if the crowds start throwing pillows – as will. the tradition when a great champion (yokozuna) falls.
The leaders will play golf before heading to sumo, then travel with their wives to a restaurant in Tokyo’s Roppongi Entertainment District, where the menu features beef sirloin skewers at 5,184 yen ($ 47) for two. .
Abe has just returned from Washington and Trump himself will be returning to Japan in just over a month for the Group of 20 leaders’ summit in the western city of Osaka.
“Three visits back and forth in a short period of time is really emblematic of the closeness of the relationship,” said a senior Trump administration official, who asked not to be identified.
A Japanese diplomat said the frequency of contact “demonstrates the unprecedented level of close personal relations between Japanese and American leaders.”
The formal diplomatic part of the trip is limited to a short bilateral meeting and a working lunch on Monday, after which the two leaders will brief the media.
They are also set to meet with families of people abducted by North Korea during the Cold War to train Pyongyang spies, a moving question in Japan that Abe urged Trump to raise during talks with the North leader. Korean Kim Jong Un.
Trump will also address troops at a U.S. base in Japan, underscoring the military alliance between the two allies at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea following the failed Hanoi summit in February.
But analysts expect little progress on the main issue dividing the two allies: trade.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is expected to meet with his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of the visit, but with Abe facing upper house elections in the coming months and Trump grappling with China, the two should avoid concessions.
Some observers suspect Abe of rolling out the red carpet to portray Japan as the most favorable of the countries currently engaged in trade disputes with Washington.
“Japan’s strategy is to conduct the negotiations with coolness,” in contrast to aggressive tariff retaliation between the United States and China, Shujiro Urata, trade expert and professor at Waseda University in China, told AFP. Tokyo.
However, the trip is more likely to be about smiles and reaffirmations of a close alliance – something Trump will no doubt welcome amid the pre-election turmoil of 2020 at home and an Iran and a China bellicose abroad.
“It’s a smart move that shows he knows something about foreign policy and actually has a friend,” said Robert Guttman, who teaches foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University.