The shock of Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election has people both in that country and overseas trying to figure out what happened. Plenty of praise — and blame — is being directed at individuals in both the Republican and Democratic campaigns, as experts point to a host of social and economic trends inside the United States as the factors for Trump’s triumph — or Hillary Clinton’s loss.
Like most of the world, Japan’s political, corporate and media establishments were totally unprepared for Trump’s win. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made sure to grab a photo with Clinton on his trip to New York before the election. But Abe and his advisers spent too much time listening to all of those in Japanese government, business and media circles who, after consulting their American sources (who were more often than not wealthy residents of New York or Washington, D.C.) assured them there was no need for a photo op with Trump. He wouldn’t win, so why bother meeting him?
There is one influential figure in Japan, however, whose instincts seemed to be far better than Abe’s: former Osaka Mayor, Gov. and Osaka Ishin no Kai co-leader Toru Hashimoto.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Hashimoto repeatedly tried to explain, and sometimes defend, Trump’s policies and his message of change via social media and on various TV programs. Trump’s calculated populist appeal was something Hashimoto, himself a calculating populist, understood well. Birds of a feather and all that.
Prior to the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote in June, Hashimoto traveled to London for a TV program to report what was going on. In the days before the U.S. election, he spoke to a number of Americans about their votes and the Republican candidate’s inflammatory rhetoric. The responses he got from those he interviewed were often more candid than the watered-down exchanges that appeared on mainstream TV news.
While it looked like he was enjoying the drama and public spectacle of American politics, it was also clear Hashimoto recognized among Trump supporters the same kind of emotions, hopes and prejudices that many of his supporters in Osaka had expressed.
Those who back Hashimoto and the Nippon Ishin movement have no love for the bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo, and the centralized power they enjoy. They feel like the government no longer works for them, that they’re disdained and ignored by Tokyo. Sound familiar? Trump supporters have voiced a visceral hatred for those same figures in Washington, D.C. They feel like they are the “forgotten men and women” of America (a term Trump used in his victory speech), disregarded by elites who label them “deplorable” (a word Clinton used in one regrettable campaign speech).
In New York last week, Abe and Trump spoke about maintaining trust in the U.S.-Japan relationship, and Abe said he had “great confidence” in the president-elect. But one gets the impression that, if they were to ever meet, Trump may prefer the company of Hashimoto.
Trump admires toughness and plain-speaking, and may quickly grow bored and irritated with the way Japan’s politicians operate. If he were to find a soul mate in Hashimoto — two giant egos who never met a television camera they didn’t love, and like to think of themselves as brash populists who can get things done — the Osakan might find himself asked by somebody connected to Abe to serve as a liaison between Trump and the Prime Minister’s Office.
That carries its own risks, of course. It assumes Hashimoto would accept such a role (which is uncertain), and that he could be an effective liaison (which is even more uncertain). The last thing anybody in the LDP or those who deal with U.S.-Japan relations wants is for Hashimoto to go on TV and veer from whatever carefully scripted talking points he was supposed to say about either leader.
There are currently many unknowns about the future of the bilateral relationship. And some sort of a Hashimoto-Trump alliance, however unlikely and frightening it might appear, no longer seems impossible in these unlikely, and frightening, times.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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