Hello? Did Japan's first lady snub Donald Trump at G-20 dinner?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie arrive for the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, on July 6, 2017.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie arrive for the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, on July 6, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Speculation has been running rampant online: Had Japan's first lady pretended not to speak English to avoid talking to United States 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".

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

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

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 (July 20) 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 had been 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.

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

It is clear in the video of her 2014 keynote address that Mrs Abe was consulting a script and, even then, occasionally stumbling over a word or two. Mrs Abe has regularly accompanied her husband Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Washington through his three stints as prime minister, and footage from her past visits shows that she has almost always used a translator when in the US.

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."