Did Abe's wife snub Trump at G-20 dinner?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie were at a G-20 dinner with US President Donald Trump earlier this month. Mr Trump later told a newspaper Mrs Abe spoke no English, not even the word "hello".
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie were at a G-20 dinner with US President Donald Trump earlier this month. Mr Trump later told a newspaper Mrs Abe spoke no English, not even the word "hello".PHOTO: REUTERS

Her English is limited and she did not want to misspeak: Observers

WASHINGTON • Speculation has been running rampant online: Did the wife of Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe pretend not to speak English to avoid talking to US President Donald Trump at the nearly two-hour dinner at the G-20 meet in Hamburg earlier this month?

Mr Trump, in an interview with The New York Times, said he felt awkward seated next to Mrs Akie Abe because she spoke no English, not even the word "hello".

A Newsweek headline read: "Japan's first lady Akie Abe mysteriously couldn't speak English when she met Donald Trump at G-20."

MarketWatch declared: "Trump says Japan's first lady doesn't speak English - but this clip shows otherwise."

However, as with so many stories about Mr Trump that go viral online, the reality is more nuanced than the Internet's fast-moving theories.

The question of how proficient Mrs Abe is at English was a guessing game on Thursday among Japanese journalists and diplomats in Washington, as well as some Japan hands in US think-tanks.

Though no one could say for certain what her fluency level was, most agreed that what was characterised as a possible political snub had more likely been a convergence of Mrs Abe's limited English abilities and a desire not to misspeak.

It is, of course, false that Mrs Abe speaks "zero" English.

There is a YouTube video showing her giving a 15-minute keynote address - in English - at a 2014 symposium on coastal resilience in New York.

At formal events, some foreign officials are concerned about protocol and worried about misspeaking if they are not speaking in their native language, foreign affairs experts said.

One Japanese television reporter in Washington wrote in an e-mail: "I really don't think she understands English very well."

It is clear in the video of her 2014 speech that Mrs Abe was consulting a script and, even then, occasionally stumbling over a word or two.

She has regularly accompanied her husband to Washington through his three stints as prime minister, and footage from her past visits shows she has almost always used a translator when in the United States.

Several interviewed by The Washington Post said they had never heard Mrs Abe speak English and speculated that she would not feel comfortable having more than a simple conversation.

"I have only heard her speak in Japanese," said one Japan expert at a think-tank. "In international meetings, she speaks through an interpreter. I expect she may be able to have a courtesy-type conversation, but you should not assume more than that."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2017, with the headline 'Did Abe's wife snub Trump at G-20 dinner?'. Print Edition | Subscribe