US president Donald Trump has met Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace, becoming the first world leader to have an audience with the new Japanese monarch, who ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in early May.
Naruhito and Empress Masako greeted Mr Trump and his wife Melania at the palace in central Tokyo on the third day of the American president’s four-day state visit to Japan. Mr Trump will return to the Imperial Palace on Monday evening for a state banquet that will also be attended by Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister.
In meeting Naruhito, Mr Trump became the only leader to have met the current and previous emperor. Naruhito assumed the throne after his father Akihito became the first monarch to abdicate in 200 years. His ascension marked the start of the “Reiwa” era — translated as “beautiful harmony” — in the imperial calendar.
The move to award Mr Trump the first state visit of the Reiwa era underscored the lengths Mr Abe has gone to ensure Japan maintains as strong a relationship as possible with the volatile US president. On Sunday, Mr Abe played golf with Mr Trump before accompanying him to watch part of the final day of a Sumo championship.
“Prime Minister Abe said to me very specifically, you are the guest of honour,” Mr Trump said before he departed Washington for Tokyo. “There’s only one guest of honour, you are the guest of honour.”
After their golf game, Mr Trump and Mr Abe both tweeted selfies of the pair smiling on the course. Later the White House posted a video on Twitter of Mr Trump attending the Sumo championship and presenting the winner with a trophy — named “The President’s Cup — that was made in the US. Mr Abe has told aides that while Mr Trump can be unpredictable, he finds him easier to deal with on a personal level than the more aloof Barack Obama.
While Washington and Tokyo enjoy a much better relationship than the US has with other allies, such as Germany, the Japanese government remains concerned that Mr Trump will take actions that will hurt Japan. Mr Trump has on occasions called for Japan to pay more to host US troops based in the country. And he has talked about putting tariffs on car imports — a threat that he recently postponed for 180 days but which remains live.
Shortly after landing in Tokyo on Saturday, Mr Trump attended a reception with Japanese business leaders during which he took a gentle swipe at Japan over the trade surplus the country has long run with the US. “The United States and Japan are hard at work negotiating a bilateral trade agreement, which will benefit both of our countries,” Mr Trump said at the US ambassador’s residence. “Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years, but that’s OK. Maybe that’s why you like us so much. But we’ll get it a little bit more fair, I think.”
After the two leaders played golf on Sunday, Mr Trump tweeted that US and Japanese trade negotiators were making “great progress”. But he confirmed that there was no chance of sealing a deal before Japan held elections in July. The Financial Times reported in April that Mr Abe told Mr Trump during a visit to Washington that Japan could not make any concessions on agriculture — a key US demand — before the upper house elections.
From Mr Abe’s point of view, the goal of the presidential visit is to secure his relationship with Mr Trump, and turn that to political advantage ahead of upper house elections.
While Mr Abe’s intense courtship of Mr Trump can seem obsequious, what the Japanese public are seeing on their TV screens is a US president paying unusually close attention to their country: watching the national sport of sumo; visiting the flagship of the self-defence forces; and meeting with the new emperor. There is some evidence that Mr Abe’s opinion poll ratings rise when attention turns to international, not domestic affairs.
Officials contrast Mr Trump’s visit to one President Dwight D Eisenhower was supposed to pay to Mr Abe’s grandfather, then prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, in 1960. That visit was cancelled amid massive demonstrations against the US-Japan Security Treaty. But the message to regional rivals, such as China, with the Trump visit is: the US has no closer friend in Asia than Japan.
“I want to make the US-Japan alliance unshakeable in this new Reiwa era,” Mr Abe said before setting off to play golf with Mr Trump.
But the question hanging over his relationship with Mr Trump is whether it will ever provide Japan with concrete results on issues such as trade and North Korea. For Mr Abe, however, simply having a US president to parade in this way is a benefit in itself.