Trump to face off with Japan's Abe on trade after golf and sumo

US President Donald Trump talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a couples dinner with first lady Melania Trump and Abe's wife Akie in Tokyo, Japan, on May 26, 2019.
US President Donald Trump talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a couples dinner with first lady Melania Trump and Abe's wife Akie in Tokyo, Japan, on May 26, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - United States President Donald Trump golfed, attended a sumo wrestling match and ate dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a hibachi restaurant when the two leaders met on Sunday (May 26).

But the real business starts on Monday as they sit down in an attempt to resolve tensions over trade and defence ties.

Mr Trump acknowledged on Sunday that a trade deal wouldn't occur during the trip, saying that nothing would be finalised until after Japan's elections in July.

While Mr Trump and Mr Abe spent much of the day together, trade negotiators had been meeting separately to hammer out a deal after Mr Trump threatened to raise auto tariffs.

"The prime minister and I talked a lot today about trade and military and various other things," Mr Trump told reporters before dinner with Mr Abe.

"And I think we had a very productive day, and tomorrow likewise would be a very productive day."

Mr Trump and Mr Abe spent about 2½ hours golfing before attending Japan's Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, where the President awarded the winner with a 1.2m trophy he commissioned.

 
 
 
 

They will meet one-on-one and have a working lunch on Monday, and Mr Trump will also become the first foreign leader to meet Japan's new emperor.

Japan is seeking to stay in Mr Trump's good graces in order to avoid costly tariffs and retain positive relations with an ally that ensures its security against the likes of China and North Korea.

Mr Abe has reportedly sought to play a mediator role in increasing tensions between the US, North Korea and Iran.

Mr Trump responded positively on Sunday when Mr Abe expressed his wish to go to Iran and hold talks with President Hassan Rouhani, the Yomiuri newspaper reported, citing unidentified people close to the Japanese government.

Last Friday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied reports that Mr Abe was considering an Iran trip.

On trade, Japan and the US still have differences and agreed "to work to get a deal done quickly", Japan Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said last Saturday after almost three hours of discussions with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in Tokyo. They did not discuss contentious issues such as US threats to restrict Japanese car exports and applying a currency clause, Mr Motegi said.

 
 
 
 

Japan will hold elections for the Upper House in July, and many have predicted the government will take the opportunity to dissolve the more powerful Lower House at the same time. It will be politically difficult for Mr Abe to concede anything, particularly on agriculture, ahead of the vote.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, is looking to strike a deal to help his re-election bid next year.

With his trade war against China escalating, the US President is looking to open up new markets for farmers hurt by increased tariffs. Yet that may be tough if he also insists on curbing imports of Japan-made cars and parts.

Mr Trump's four-day trip will also include a visit to one of the two biggest warships Japan has built since World War II. That will give Mr Abe a chance to emphasise that his government is spending more on US military equipment, particularly as Mr Trump is said to be preparing to seek more money from Japan for hosting American troops.

"Japan is doing very large orders, and we appreciate that, and we think it's probably appropriate right now with everything that's going on," Mr Trump said in a meeting with business leaders last Saturday. "The world is changing."

On Sunday morning, Mr Trump and Mr Abe played golf at the Mobara Country Club along with Japanese professional golfer Isao Aoki. Later, the two leaders entered the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo hall to a cheering crowd of more than 11,000 people.

"It was something to see, these great athletes, because they really are athletes," Mr Trump said of the sumo match. "It's a very ancient sport. And I've always wanted to see sumo wrestling. So it was really great."

Some traditions were adapted for Mr Trump. Rather than sitting on traditional cushions, 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 to hand the trophy weighing at least 27kg to winner Asanoyama.

Mr Trump is well acquainted with professional wrestling. He hosted World Wrestling Entertainment Inc events at his now-defunct Atlantic City casino, sitting in the front row of fights, and cultivating an on-screen rivalry with WWE chairman Vince McMahon. Mr McMahon's wife, Linda, led the Small Business Administration until earlier this year and now serves as chair of the pro-Trump America First Action super-political action committee.

On the culinary side of his trip, the President has stuck to a mostly unadventurous menu. He had a cheeseburger at lunch on Sunday with US beef, symbolic since Japan re-opened US beef imports recently.

For dinner, he had a potato, salad, grilled chicken and Wagyu beef steak with broccoli and carrots followed by vanilla ice cream.