TOKYO (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - US President Donald Trump on Sunday (May 26) played golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and presented a trophy to the winner of a sumo tournament, turning to personal diplomacy for the second day of a Japan visit shadowed by tough trade talk.
Mr Trump is unhappy with Japan’s large trade surplus and is considering putting high tariffs on its auto exports if a bilateral trade agreement is not reached. The United States and China are also engaged in an expensive trade war that has pounded financial markets worldwide.
But it was all smiles on Sunday as the two leaders played golf and later, with wives Melania and Akie, watched giant sumo wrestlers grapple on the final day of a 15-day tournament won by rising Japanese star Asanoyama.
Mr Trump, the first US president to watch sumo in the sport’s homeland, waved to a cheering crowd of more than 11,000 people as he entered the hallowed Kokugikan and then saluted them with applause as they waved and raised their phones to take photos.
Arriving just in time for Asanoyama’s bout, Mr Trump nodded as Mr Abe gestured in explanation, later watching as the three final wrestlers, wearing only traditional loincloths, lifted their legs high and stamped them to the ground in a ritual entrance.
Some traditions were adapted for Mr Trump. Rather than sitting on traditional cushions cross-legged, chairs were built into a platform to give him more back support.
He wore shoes while watching the matches but put on slippers to be able to walk onto the sacred mound. He bowed after helping hand the President's Cup - a trophy topped with a bald eagle, the US national bird - to winner 25-year-old Asanoyama.
“In honour of your outstanding achievement as Sumo Grand Champion, I hereby award you the United States President’s Cup,” Mr Trump said, reading from a prize certificate.
The origins of sumo date to at least the 7th century. The wrestlers, clad in loincloths, stamp their feet, throw salt and stare at each other before a bout begins. A match is won by pushing the opponent out of the ring or throwing him down.
Security was tight at the sumo hall, with fans forced to pass through metal detectors. The traditional throwing of cushions to mark an exciting round was prohibited.
The two leaders had earlier in the day met at a suburban golf course. Mr Trump, dressed in a red pullover, and Mr Abe, wearing a blue blazer and white pants, smiled for photographers before taking off for their game, which took place in 30 deg C temperatures as an unseasonal heat wave blasts Japan.
Mr Abe’s office later posted a selfie picture on the course with Mr Trump and Mr Abe smiling together, Mr Trump wearing a red USA cap. Mr Abe said in the post he hoped to make the Japan-US alliance “even more unshakeable”.
Despite the bonhomie, trade was never far from mind.
“Great progress being made in our trade negotiations with Japan. Agriculture and beef heavily in play,” Mr Trump tweeted after arriving back in Tokyo from the suburban golf course where the two played 16 holes.
“Much will wait until after their July elections where I anticipate big numbers.”
An election for the upper house of parliament is likely to take place in July, though there is also speculation that Mr Abe may call a snap election for the lower house at the same time.
Beef was also heavily in play at lunch. The golf was followed by double cheeseburgers made with US beef, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“They deepened their friendship amid a cozy atmosphere,” the statement added.
The President’s state visit is meant to showcase the strength of the Japan-US relationship, but tensions over trade have provided a backdrop of uncertainty.
During remarks to business leaders on Saturday night, Mr Trump ribbed Japan over its trading edge while saying progress had been made.
“With this deal, we hope to address the trade imbalance, remove barriers to United States exports, and ensure fairness and reciprocity in our relationship. And we’re getting closer,” he said.
“Just last week, US beef exports gained full access to Japan and to the markets in Japan for the first time since the year 2000. We welcome your support in these efforts, and we hope to have several further announcements soon, and some very big ones over the next few months.”
US officials have played down prospects of any major progress on the President’s trip.
The two leaders are also likely to discuss North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, another point where their thinking diverges.
Though Japan has said North Korea’s recent missile launches were a violation of UN resolutions aimed at halting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes, Mr Trump said on Sunday he was not concerned about them and was confident that the country’s leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, would keep his promises.