When Japan enthrones a new emperor on May 1, the country’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, might be feeling a little jet lagged.
Just four days before one of his nation’s most important ceremonial events in a generation, akin to the election of a new Pope in Rome, Abe plans to jet around the world and back for a vital mission: maintaining his relationship with President Donald Trump.
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Abe’s 36-hour trip to a foreign capital 6,700 miles away — he tentatively plans to join First Lady Melania Trump’s 49th birthday celebrations on Friday, April 26, and golf with Trump himself the next day, according to two sources familiar with his plans — underscores the extraordinary lengths he has gone to cultivate the U.S. president.
Abe, who came to office in 2012 determined to cement the U.S.-Japan alliance, has fully embraced the belief that developing a personal rapport with the president is the way to score diplomatic concessions. Over a courtship that has lasted more than two years, Abe has personally delivered a gold-plated golf club to the president-elect at Trump Tower and, at least by Trump’s account, recently nominated the American president for the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of his nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.
The actions reflect the huge stakes for Abe in his relationship with Trump. His island nation relies on America for protection against a rising China, fears Trump’s threatened tariffs on auto imports, and is trying to reverse tariffs Trump has already imposed on steel and aluminum industries.
Now, as his country jumpstarts trade negotiations with the U.S. — a Japanese delegation was in Washington Monday and Tuesday meeting with Trump’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer — Abe is redoubling his efforts to keep Trump’s ear. And with Trump planning to return the favor by making two visits to Japan in May and June, Japanese officials are still trying to figure out, and cater to, the impulsive U.S. president on whom they rely so heavily.
“Abe’s policy team spends significant time examining President Trump’s rhetoric, including tweets, to mimic his language in their talking points for the prime minister and his representatives,” said Andrew L. Oros, an East Asia specialist and political science professor at Washington College. “This stands in contrast to their more typical approach of prepping negotiators about the nuances and details on the policy issues themselves.”
Abe’s goal is, in part, to avert an economic disaster. The trade negotiations — and the president’s forthcoming decision about whether to slap Japan with steep auto tariffs — could prove a make-or-break issue for the chummy relationship.
“What the Japanese around Abe tell me is if Trump puts in place the [car tariffs], then Abe will have to hit back. It will be untenable,” said Mike Green, the senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Unlike things Trump has done so far to Japan, which have been embarrassing, that would really hurt Japan.”
In an effort to prevent that from happening, as well as to achieve other policy objectives, Abe and his team have become unofficial Trumpologists, sounding out American academics about the best ways to charm the the president, some of those contacted by officials in Tokyo said. Among the advice they received: reach out to members of the Trump family, who are among the president’s closest diplomatic advisers.
Japan initially feared its regional rival China had the upper hand thanks to Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s ties to Chinese billionaires through his family’s real-estate business, Green said. “They feared Kushner was way too close to Chinese billionaires in New York because of his real estate business,” Green said. “So part of the love and the strategic attention is to prevent the Chinese from getting in there first.” (“Jared is as familiar with as many Japanese billionaires as Chinese billionaires. The notion that his relationships would get in the way of his government work is absurd,” said a White House official.)
To that end, the Japanese flew in the entertainer Pikotaro, a favorite of Trump granddaughter Arabella Kushner, to a 2017 celebration held at the country’s Washington embassy attended by Ivanka Trump and two of her children, including Arabella. When Pikotaro—most famous for a 45-second long pop hit—couldn’t make it, he recorded a personalized video message for Ivanka Trump and Arabella instead.
Japanese diplomats have already begun sounding out White House aides and American academics about how to impress Trump when he visits Japan in late May to meet the new emperor, Japan’s first since 1989. Among the ideas under consideration: Inviting Trump and Melania to tea at the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, the emperor’s hallowed residence to which few are allowed, and providing him with a rare personal tour of the grounds.
Trump will return to Japan in late June, for the annual G-20 summit of industrialized nations, which Abe will host in Osaka.
Abe’s model of personal diplomacy reflects the approach of other leaders from Asia to the Middle East to Europe who have wooed Trump with deeply personal approach to diplomacy that has redefined statecraft in the Trump era, in which personal relationships and extravagant flattery are stand-ins for strategic arguments about national interest.
There is even a competitive element among those nations. When Trump visits Japan, for instance, Abe and his team are hoping to outshine their regional rivals in China, who wowed Trump on his first foreign trip in 2017, when President Xi Jinping gave Trump and his wife a personal tour of the Forbidden City, followed by an elaborate Chinese opera and acrobatic performance.
“Maybe we really need do to worry about China,” Trump told aides afterwards, according to a former White House official. The hard-to-impress president was blown away by the entertainment, which featured Chinese schoolchildren and dozens of costumed performers. Racking his brain for American analogues, he mused, “Well, we have the Rockettes…”
The question is what the Japanese have gotten for their labors. Abe’s critics have mocked him for obsequious behavior that’s had little payoff, as when Trump refused to exempt Japan from the steel and aluminum tariffs he slapped on several nations last March. Nor were Abe and his compatriots thrilled by Trump’s diplomatic about-face on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom the president went from deriding as “Little Rocket Men” to praising as “very sharp” leader. Abe’s government has little faith that Kim, who has fired several test missiles over Japan, is genuinely willing to give up his nuclear program, and fears that Trump will cut a deal with North Korea that doesn’t meet Japan’s criteria.
Even so, after Trump publicly claimed in February that Abe had nominated him for a Nobel Prize in honor of his nuclear diplomacy with Kim, the Japanese leader didn’t deny that he had done so. “I’m not saying its untrue,” he told skeptical lawmakers, even as he defended “[c]ooperating hand-in-hand with President Trump.”
Abe’s defenders point to the actions Trump hasn’t taken. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump blasted the Japan, among nations, for its failure to build up its own defense arsenal, even suggesting that Japan and South Korea might consider developing their own nuclear arsenals.
“Every time North Korea raises its head, you know, we get calls from Japan and we get calls from everybody else, and ‘Do something,’” Trump told the New York Times in March of 2016. “And there’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore.”
And while he has criticized South Korea from the Oval Office — Trump enjoys a cooler relationship with its leftist president, Moon Jae-in — he has abandoned his calls for Japan to increase its defense spending.
“Trump has never mentioned paying more for the alliance with Japan. He’s mentioned this with Korea but not Japan,” said Michael Auslin, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who specializes in contemporary Asia. “So they’ve been successful in bringing him into the traditional framework of the U.S.-Japan relationship.”
Auslin said that Abe had little choice but to offer Trump a warm embrace after fully preparing for a Hillary Clinton presidency in 2016 and developing relationships with her advisers, while neglecting the Trump team. When Trump won, he said, Abe “really had no choice but to go right to the top.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this story.