Golf and sumo on Trump's Japan agenda

PM Abe seen as eager to keep US President entertained in bid to avoid friction of any sort

Police officers setting up barricades in front of the American embassy in Tokyo yesterday, ahead of US President Donald Trump's state visit to Japan today.
Police officers setting up barricades in front of the American embassy in Tokyo yesterday, ahead of US President Donald Trump's state visit to Japan today. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Japan is rolling out the red carpet for US President Donald Trump as he starts his four-day state visit today, although the pomp and pageantry may appear to be a ploy to distract from the big elephant in the room - trade.

Both Japanese and American officials have talked up their "closer-than-ever" relationship, as they stress the significance of what is the first state visit in the new Reiwa (beautiful harmony) imperial era.

Mr Trump and his wife Melania will be the first to make a state call on the newly-crowned Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako at the Imperial Palace on Monday.

The trip, which includes golf, sumo and dinner at an izakaya restaurant, has been seen by numerous Japanese and US media outlets as full of photo opportunities but potentially light on substance.

The real meaty issue will come on Monday, when Mr Trump is set to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a bilateral summit and a working lunch.

Officials say they will confirm and reaffirm their cooperation on such issues as North Korea, their Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, and the success of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka next month.

Officials have talked down the emphasis on trade, despite Mr Trump having said last month that he hopes a deal could be struck during the current visit.

A US official said: "I don't think that the purpose of this trip is to focus on trade. It's really to be state guests of Their Majesties."

Meanwhile, a Japanese official would only say: "The leaders will confirm the acceleration of (trade) discussions based on mutual trust between Japan and the US."

Still, their meeting comes only days after working-level talks hit a speed bump over auto duties that Japan wants eliminated but the US wants raised to 25 per cent on national security grounds.

The US is also seeking lower tariffs from Japan on agricultural products, in line with those agreed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that Mr Trump had pulled out of.

They remain poles apart on trade, but Japan sees itself as regaining eminence globally in large part due to Mr Abe's courtship of Mr Trump.

The two leaders have had more than 40 meetings or phone conversations, while Mr Abe has never denied that he nominated Mr Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is the second in a trio of meetings between Mr Abe and Mr Trump in as many months. Mr Abe was in Washington last month, while Mr Trump will be attending the Group of 20 summit in Osaka next month.

After a round of golf tomorrow morning, they will be joined by their wives at the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, where Mr Trump will present the winner with what has been dubbed the "Trump Cup" in lieu of the Prime Minister's Cup.

All eyes are on how far Japan is prepared to bend the rules of a sacred sport to accommodate Mr Trump. Tight-lipped officials will only say they will make the "minimum necessary arrangements", but it is widely expected that Mr Trump will eschew sitting cross-legged on a floor cushion and instead sit on a chair.

While shoes are barred from the sumo ring, it is also expected that Mr Trump will put on slippers or shoe covers.

Mr Trump will end his visit with a trip on Tuesday to a US Navy base in Yokosuka, where he will stress the US-Japan bilateral alliance in an address to American troops.

The US-based think-tank Eurasia Group said in a report on Thursday: "Abe has done his best to pack Trump's itinerary in Japan with events designed to keep him entertained and in good spirits, and most important, dampen his desire to spend the trip accusing Japan of being an unfair and ungrateful trade and security partner and demanding redress."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2019, with the headline Golf and sumo on Trump's Japan agenda. Subscribe