Not every foreign leader gets invited into the White House for a slice of birthday cake. But for anyone who really wants to make a trade deal with President Trump, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, is about as close to a family friend as you can get.
When Melania Trump’s 49th birthday fell during Mr. Abe’s visit to Washington last month, the prime minister and his wife, Akie Abe, were invited to the cake cutting.
Talk of continuing trade disagreements and the threat of North Korean missiles were on the agenda, but so was the first couple’s trip to Japan, a four-day state visit that begins on Saturday. Now that the first couple is headed to Tokyo, Mr. Abe will return the hospitality.
Significant challenges lie ahead, especially as the United States and Japan begin thorny trade talks and Mr. Trump confronts new provocations from North Korea.
So to keep close ties with Mr. Trump — Mr. Abe’s occasional golf buddy and the world leader on the other end of more than 40 discussions or visits since the 2016 election, according to White House officials — the prime minister has planned a visit dripping in a level of ceremony that money can’t buy.
All of Mr. Abe’s plans are meant to remind Mr. Trump, the leader of Japan’s most important ally, not to forget about his closest friend in Asia. There will be sumo wrestling with a customized Trump trophy. There will be a meeting with the new Japanese emperor. There will be a state banquet.
For Mr. Abe, the flattery is the product of close study of a president who sees diplomacy as an entirely personal endeavor. But two and a half years into the relationship, some observers at home and abroad are questioning whether the overtures have paid off.
With Japan’s economy in a slowdown, Mr. Abe is pursuing a bilateral trade deal with Mr. Trump and is trying to ward off a longstanding threat by the Trump administration to enact damaging auto tariffs. White House officials have said not to expect such a trade-related accord to come out of Mr. Trump’s visit this week.
On matters of security, Mr. Trump’s overtures to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, continue to rattle the Japanese, who have feared becoming sidelined. White House officials this week stressed the importance of the alliance in deterring aggression from Japan’s neighbors, but emphasized that this visit is a heavily ceremonial one.
Mr. Abe is “just trying to entertain President Trump and make his visit a political spectacle,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hosei University. “But I must say Mr. Abe hasn’t achieved any results or any outcomes from these diplomatic activities. It is just a superficial political spectacle to conceal Mr. Abe’s failure in diplomacy.”
The prime minister has continued to heavily court Mr. Trump in hopes of sidestepping the rocky relations that the president is now facing with North Korea and China. But it is not clear such an approach will ultimately preserve an airtight bond. Although Mr. Abe shares some of Mr. Trump’s right-leaning philosophies, he is not the sort of strongman leader Mr. Trump often admires.
Still, with a culture known for its hospitality, putting on a lavish ceremonial show is one of the best cards that Japan has to play. On Sunday, Mr. Abe will host Mr. Trump at a basho, one of six annual grand tournaments in sumo, inviting the president to view one of the country’s most hallowed traditions. (There will still be an American twist: a Trump-themed trophy will go to the winner.) Plans for this event, a White House official told reporters this week, are “very much on.”
The cornerstone of the trip comes Monday, when the Trumps visit Emperor Naruhito, 59, who ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne this month after the abdication of his 85-year-old father, Emperor Akihito. Mr. Trump will be the first visiting leader to meet the new emperor, and a state banquet will follow.
The Japanese are hailing this new era under Naruhito as “Reiwa” — which the government has translated as “beautiful harmony” — and Mr. Abe has made it clear that he wants this concept to define his relationship with Mr. Trump.
“Japan’s strategy from the get-go has been to really reach out to Trump personally,” Shihoko Goto, a senior associate for northeast Asia at the Wilson Center, said. “It’s precisely because they know the psychology of flattery that puts Japan into good graces with Trump.”
Mr. Abe has spent years studying what makes Mr. Trump tick. He convinced his reluctant friend to make the trip by emphasizing that a new emperor is about 100 times a bigger deal than the Super Bowl.
“If that’s the case,’” Mr. Trump told reporters in April of his decision to visit, “I’ll be there.”
Mr. Abe’s efforts, of course, belie more strategic needs. As talks between the Trump administration and North Korea over nuclear disarmament stall, Japan will look to Mr. Trump for reassurance that the United States remains a staunch ally. White House officials said Mr. Trump is expected to address the importance of deterring aggression when he visits American troops stationed at the Yokosuka naval base on Tuesday.
“In an island country like ours, we have this small country assumption that people may not care about us,” said Kuniko Inoguchi, a member of the upper house of Parliament from Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. “So if you care about us, we are flattered.”
This week’s trip is mostly symbolic, given that Mr. Trump is expected to return to Japan next month for the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka and Mr. Abe will have several other opportunities to meet with the president at the Group of 7 meeting in France in August, as well as at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
Still, other countries have relied on the power of ceremony — and a royal family — to compliment Mr. Trump. During Mr. Trump’s first trip abroad in Saudi Arabia, the president was surrounded by dancers and had huddled with King Salman of Saudi Arabia over a decorative glowing orb. And last summer, Mr. Trump had tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.
During Mr. Trump’s first visit to Japan in 2017, Mr. Abe mixed lavish examples of Japanese culture with the comforts of Mr. Trump’s home: After the two tucked into (well-done) cheeseburgers made from American Angus beef, their meal triggered a mini food craze in Japan. On this week’s trip, a round of golf and burgers is expected to be worked into the agenda.
By hosting Mr. Trump on an official state visit — a rare event staged no more than twice a year in Japan — Mr. Abe is cranking up the status factor. In recent years, many of the foreign visitors accorded such ranking were royals from European countries.
At the state banquet, Mr. Trump could be seated next to Empress Masako, a former diplomat who previously worked on trade negotiations with the United States and juggled President Bill Clinton and President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia at one of her first state dinners as crown princess.
For his part, Mr. Abe was eager to bond with Mr. Trump from the beginning. After the 2016 election, Mr. Abe circumvented protocol, bypassing the Obama White House to meet directly with the president-elect and members of his family in Trump Tower. Along the way, Mr. Abe has racked up substantial face time with Mr. Trump in visits to at least five Trump properties.
Mr. Trump has taken note of Mr. Abe’s affection. In February, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Abe had shown him “the most beautiful copy of a letter” that the prime minister had sent on the president’s behalf to the Nobel Peace Prize committee — a claim Mr. Abe did not deny.
Sooner rather than later, Mr. Abe will be looking to showcase the fruits of his investment. This summer, Mr. Abe faces an important national election, and observers say they worry that the Japanese government has wasted political capital in going over the top simply to keep Mr. Trump from turning on it.
“From the perspective of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Abe government, it makes sense to please Trump as much as possible with the sumo and the first head of state to meet the emperor,” said Yujin Yaguchi, a professor of American studies at the University of Tokyo. “But as a citizen I just don’t understand why we have to please the U.S. government so much.”
Source: The New York Times