Shinzo Abe takes his Donald Trump charm offensive the extra mile
Speaking alongside Mr Abe at Akasaka Palace on Monday, Mr Trump said he was “thrilled to be back in the Land of the Rising Sun”, the country he routinely bashed during the 2016 presidential race. His praise was testament to the way Mr Abe has cultivated the US president since he flew to New York in November 2016 to congratulate the president-elect.
In his quest to keep Mr Trump on side, Mr Abe invited him to become the first world leader to meet Emperor Naruhito, who ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne this month. Attending a state banquet at the Imperial Palace on Monday evening, Mr Trump seemed to approve. “We are profoundly honoured to return to Japan as your nation’s first state guests following the enthronement of his majesty the emperor,” he declared.
Most leaders would be more than happy to be honoured with the first state visit of a new imperial era. But with Tokyo nervous about lingering threats from Mr Trump — everything from possible tariffs on cars to demands to pay more for US troops based in Japan — Mr Abe took his charm offensive the extra mile.
First came the obligatory round of golf. Perhaps to show French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel why they were losing the “flatter Trump” contest, Mr Abe posted a selfie of the two leaders on the golf course that would not have seemed out of place as an advertisement for The Odd Couple.
Maybe in an effort to keep Mr Trump off Twitter — from where his most dangerous threats are launched — Mr Abe then took him to watch a Sumo championship, the first time a Japanese leader had done so with a US leader. Showing again that he is the “yokozuna”— grand champion — of sycophancy, Mr Abe arranged for Mr Trump to present the winner with “The President’s Cup”, a trophy that Mr Trump had made in America.
Mr Abe said on Monday that it was “an unforgettable moment” for the winner “to receive the trophy directly from President Trump”. Mr Trump responded in kind: “I’ve always wanted to see a sumo tournament. I presented the first-ever US President’s Cup to the sumo grand champion. That was something.”
Mr Abe also took out insurance in case Mr Trump overlooked his advances. If the president had been looking out of the window of Air Force One as his aeroplane approached Tokyo on Saturday night, he would have seen that Skytree — the tallest building in Japan — was lit up in the colours of the Stars and Stripes.
Mr Abe is not the only foreign leader to play to Mr Trump’s narcissistic side. At one point, Mr Macron became a favourite after he wooed Mr Trump and his wife Melania over dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower and invited him to a military parade. During a visit to the White House last year, Polish president Andrzej Duda also took a shot by saying he wanted the US to build a military base in his country, suggesting that it be called “Fort Trump”.
Yet Mr Abe was seen as so successful in his early approach to Mr Trump that world leaders have studied his every move for advice about how to handle the president.
Over the past few days, Japanese media have dubbed his approach “entertainment diplomacy”. Yet some critics have suggested that the Japanese leader is prostrating himself like an overly eager salesman.
But the critical question for Japan is whether Mr Abe is converting his charm into results. Mireya Solís, a Japan expert at the Brookings Institution, said he had succeeded in avoiding the wrath of Mr Trump but “has not sheltered Japan from very negative developments on trade”. Almost on cue at their press conference on Monday, Mr Trump reminded Mr Abe that golf and sumo did not mean Japan could become complacent.
When Mr Abe was asked if the US president had reassured him that he would not impose tariffs on cars, Mr Trump sparked laughter by quipping: “I want to hear his answer too.”
Follow Demetri on Twitter: @dimi