National / Politics

Abe and Trump to rekindle friendship, but not all see rapport as positive for Japan, survey says

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump are said to have a good personal relationship, 43.7 percent of those who responded to a recent survey by The Japan Times viewed it as bad for Japan, while 14.1 percent said it was bad for the U.S.

On the other hand, while 47.9 percent said it was good for the U.S., only 25.4 percent said it had a good impact on Japan.

At the same time, nearly 63 percent of those who responded said they didn’t expect much to come out of a meeting between the two leaders early next week, while just over a third said that Trump will offer strong condemnation of North Korea and promises of closer U.S.-Japan cooperation.

The results of the survey, conducted Oct. 25-27, come as Japan prepares for Trump’s arrival Sunday, when he will meet with Abe, with whom he has forged a particularly close relationship since taking office in January. It depends on the outcome of the visit as to whether the relationship will have an impact on Japan, according to 31 percent of respondents, while 38 percent said the impact on the U.S. depends on the outcome.

Some 689 readers answered the multiple-choice, online survey, which asked about the U.S.-Japan relationship, and many provided comments about what their hopes and concerns were for both the Trump-Abe meeting and the more general state of the bilateral relationship.

Asked why they thought the Trump-Abe relationship was a good thing for Japan, the highest percentage of 689 responses at 8.85 percent said it would lead to a stronger military deterrent, while 8.13 percent felt it would lead to a deeper sense of trust between the two nations. Some respondents also said that a relationship between the two men was better for Japanese and U.S. businesses, representing the views of 5.5 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively, in the poll.

On reasons why the relationship may be a bad thing for Japan, 26.7 percent said it risked hurting Japan’s image, 21 percent worried that Trump can’t keep his promises, 13.2 percent said it will hinder an independent foreign policy for Japan and 9.3 percent said it will handicap future bilateral relations.

Regarding the impact on the United States, 47.8 percent of a total of 610 responses said the chumminess between the two leaders was a positive, while 14 percent said it was negative.

Providing reasons why the closeness may positively influence the U.S., 21.5 percent of the 689 total responses said it was because the U.S. was a strong military ally. Another 9 percent said that Abe was a friend of the U.S. and about 8.4 percent said the Japanese prime minister can play a role as Trump’s “Asia adviser.” Just over 7 percent said it could lead to new business opportunities.

With only 143 responses, fewer people offered reasons why the friendship would be a downside for the U.S. Based on a total of 689 responses, 6.7 percent answered that it would complicate trilateral relations between the U.S., Japan and South Korea, 4.8 percent said it damaged America’s image and 3.3 percent replied that Abenomics is bad for U.S. investment. About 3 percent said it harmed future bilateral relations.

Readers were also asked to provide their own comments about the visit. Many of the observations were related to how the leaders, especially Trump, might use security issues, especially in regard to North Korea, to political advantage.

“My concern is that both Trump and Abe use North Korea as an external threat to promote their respective nationalistic agendas. White supremacists in the U.S. see Japan as a successful example of an ethno-state. I believe Trump’s visit could embolden these groups. In my opinion, Japanese citizens seem concerned about the N.K. missile tests, but have a very fatalistic view of the escalating situation,” said Brett Davis, who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Others worry that Trump is the great unknown in the security relationship.

“With caveats, the U.S.-Japan security treaty protects both U.S. and Japanese interests (the treaty neither forces the U.S. to ‘protect Japan for free’ nor treats Japan as merely a colony or military base), but instead contributes to stability and security in the Western Pacific region. The chief caveat: Donald Trump. There is no telling what Trump will say or do that will upset observed conventions or the balance of power in Asia,” said Nevin Thompson, who lives in Fukui Prefecture.

Some Japanese respondents expressed concern that the relationship was one-sided, and that Japan was either too willing to follow Trump or that Abe might give away too much on trade.

“I am concerned that Japan is generally overly accommodating to the U.S.’s demands to disguise its domestic problems such as poverty and human rights issues. That’s not a healthy partnership,” said Yuko Ikegami Lee, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“I am concerned that Abe will accept Trump’s ill-conceived demand to open Japan’s market for foreign investment and remove trade barriers. Little will be achieved from Japan’s concession on these issues as the country’s investment and goods markets are very open,” said Tsuneo Akaha, a professor of international policy and development at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.

“The president will likely insist on progress on bilateral trade talks, including a pledge to work toward a U.S.-Japan free trade agreement. He will be able to tout such an outcome as a major accomplishment of his visit to Tokyo. Abe knows he needs to help Trump demonstrate he is a ‘strong leader’ and a ‘successful negotiator,’ and will likely agree to Trump’s demand. Trump will likely reciprocate by agreeing that Japan can forge ahead in its leading role in developing the TPP11 (Trans-Pacific Partnership without the U.S.). Both sides can then declare that they are committed to expanding ‘fair trade,'” he added in a follow-up email to The Japan Times.

Eric Lin, an American based in Kobe, also cited the TPP and said more work needed to be done between the two leaders on trade, but especially by Trump.

“With TPP gone, both countries should continue to work on trade-related issues. It is President Trump’s promise to all the hard-working Americans (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania) who voted for him last November,” Lin said.

Yet there were also worries expressed that while Trump and Abe might have struck up a rapport, that might not be a good thing for the overall relationship.

“My hopes are for relations that extend far beyond the ‘bromance’ nature of the divisive figures, Abe and Trump. Neither garners majority support from their respective employers, the citizenry,” said Nancy Snow, a Tokyo-based professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and an Adjunct Fellow at Temple University Japan.

She added she was concerned about the nuclear option for Japan.

“A nuclear military power Japan will be startling to the Japanese people and to the region. It’s the wrong direction for the world and the wrong way to handle North Korea,” Snow said.

Still other readers took a more historical view, saying it was time for Japan to lead, not follow, either Trump or the U.S.

“It’s time for Japan to express itself more independently and take initiative in steering the course of future relations with the U.S., and of its role globally. The relative post WWII peace and stability in East Asia is largely a result of Japan’s “peace constitution” and forming allied relations rather than succumbing to festering hostilities. Japan must shine the light on its cultural propensity for overcoming adversity by cultivating harmony through mutual respect and reciprocity,” said Adrienne Onizuka, an English teacher who lives in Kyoto.

The following comments on the visit were also received by readers who provided contact information to The Japan Times:

“I worry that Japan might take a more confrontational stance in military and diplomatic matters, as Trump and Abe would feed each other’s egos,” said Melvin Dy, who is from the Philippines and lives in Tokyo.

“I understand that Japan accepting this visit does not necessarily reflect their assessment of Trump and his policies; it may be simple realpolitik that they ‘have to’ welcome a foreign head of a state that is still ostensibly an ally. That still doesn’t change the fact that I see enough similarities between the Abe administration and Trump’s administration that I can’t help but worry about what they would talk about behind closed doors. Worse, Trump’s grossly irresponsible comments regarding North Korea don’t make it easy to dismiss the possibility that North Korea might decide to make a display of taking him out when he’s within figurative spitting distance,” Dy added in an email to The Japan Times.

“If Abe is truly interested in reform of the Constitution’s stance on the legality of the military, he might find his only chance to do so with full U.S. support is during the Trump administration. Trump has repeatedly chided other nations for ‘not paying their fair share’ of defense agreements, so if Abe wants to pitch the removal of Article 9 as a political win that Trump can use at home, perhaps a sitting U.S. president will laud the erasure of a Constitution his country helped write,” said Owen Ziegler, who lives in Chiba Prefecture.

“I’d also like to add that even though Abe and Trump may seem to have a warmer relationship than most other world leaders have managed to foster with the temperamental president, a buddy-buddy trip to Japan shouldn’t be taken at face value. If Abe takes Trump golfing, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re friends — it may just mean that Abe knows that he can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, especially considering this particular fly reacts to vinegar with an even more bitter reaction of his own. Essentially, if Abe wants constitutional reform supported by this president, if he wants concrete action on North Korea, he needs to make Trump believe they are friends, even if the last thing he wants to do is get trapped in another one of those now notorious handshakes,” he added in a follow-up email.

“It is with great ambivalence I welcome President Trump to Japan, my home country. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly supported the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from Japan. So when he was elected into the highest office of the free world, I was disappointed that the US-Japan security treaty may be revoked,” said Taichi Fukai, a Japanese living in the Tokyo area in an email to The Japan Times.

“Abe found that his neoconservative beliefs somewhat overlapped with Trump’s fascist ideas. I was and still am relieved that-Japan is definitely not equipped enough to fend off Chinese and possibly North Korean threats. At the same time, I sense a grave danger when looking at the overall trend in political theory over the past decade. The growth of populism and neo-Nazi groups highlighted what some may call the darkest years in politics since the World Wars. Trump and Abe lead the pack in that field. Trump’s fascism coupled with Abe’s traditionalism spearhead the wave of populism. I certainly do not seek the destruction of the friendship, but I do fear the strengthening of it,” Fukai added.

Jenise Treuting, a Tokyo-based American, expressed the general view some anonymous respondents held toward Trump: “I hope Japan will politely turn away and go about its business until the U.S. is decent enough to be seen in public again. My hope is that the international community would continue working on the things the world needs to focus on — climate change, disaster relief, economic justice — and let the US catch up when we’re ready to join the adults again,” she said.

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