National / Politics

Sumo diplomacy as Abe courts Trump, but U.S. leader's tweets may have left Tokyo unnerved

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday basked in the spotlight of his first state visit to Japan, taking in sumo matches and presenting the champion with a massive President’s Cup after hitting the links earlier in the day with golfing buddy Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and confirming that he would not press the Japanese leader on a trade deal — for now.

Smiling and waving before the roughly 11,500 fans who had crowded into the hallowed Ryogoku Kokugikan, where security was intense, Trump became the first U.S. president to attend such a sumo tournament and, at the end, to step into the ring and present a cup.

Seated on a special sofa-like chair that officials said was to provide him with back support — breaking the custom of sitting cross-legged on a mat — Trump watched five bouts and then, wearing slippers, joined Abe to climb a small portable staircase to enter the dohyō (sumo ring). Inside, he gave a short bow and, grinning widely, presented the 30-kg, 1.4-meter-tall trophy topped with a bald eagle, the U.S. national bird, and with his name emblazoned on its base to the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament champion, rank-and-filer Asanoyama, who had clinched the title Saturday.

Security at the site had been beefed up to unprecedented levels — with fans screened by metal detectors and asked to sip from any boxed beverage they planned to take in to prove the liquid was not dangerous. Vending machines selling bottled and canned drinks inside the venue were also off-limits and fans had been warned that they would be ejected and face punishment if they threw their seat cushions — a tradition when unexpected or important events occur in the ring — out of fear the president could be hit.

But the pageantry afforded Trump on the first full day of his four-day visit was overshadowed by the mercurial U.S. president’s missives on Twitter earlier in the day — words that focused on trade and nuclear-armed North Korea — that were likely to have unnerved Abe.

In one tweet ahead of his arrival at the Mobara Country Club golf course in Mobara, Chiba Prefecture, in the morning, Trump played down a series of recent short-range missile tests by the North while praising leader Kim Jong Un and taking a shot at former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner among a slew of Democratic candidates looking to challenge him in the 2020 presidential election.

“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” he wrote. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”

While the president and top White House officials have repeatedly pointed to the absence of longer-range ballistic missile tests that could hit the U.S. as a top achievement, it has been precisely those “small weapons” — many capable of striking Japan — and the seeming lack of concern for them by Washington that has unnerved Tokyo.

Making matters worse, this was not the first time top officials in the administration had shown a lack of concern for the North’s arsenal of shorter-range weapons, many of which are said to be pointed in the direction of allies Japan and South Korea.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said that while Japan and the U.S. are at least “superficially” on the same page when it comes to North Korean denuclearization and missile testing, Japan’s concerns have grown since the collapse of Trump’s second summit with Kim in Hanoi in late February.

“At a deeper level … the post-Hanoi momentum in terms of denuclearization and Pyongyang resuming missile testing as well as diplomatic outreach with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin has reinforced Tokyo’s view that Chairman Kim’s maximum-engagement diplomacy has been a ruse” to get sanctions eased while extracting benefits from all stakeholders.

The North has issued a spate of high-level warnings demanding U.S. concessions at the bargaining table and threatening a “fiercer” response, but Trump has largely ignored those admonitions, which he admitted had alarmed some of his “people,” including hawkish national security adviser John Bolton.

Bolton said Saturday in Tokyo that there was “no doubt” the launches had contravened United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Still, Trump has repeatedly struck an optimistic note, at least in public, that a deal can be reached with Pyongyang over relinquishing its nuclear arsenal — even as talks have remained deadlocked since the collapse of the Hanoi summit.

Prior to Trump’s arrival in Tokyo, some observers had said the North could test-fire another missile as a means of getting the president’s attention during his trip. But the skies remained cloudless and missile-free Sunday — a perfect, albeit hot day for Trump and Abe to partake in the sport that their bromance has grown under: golf.

Looking to use their mutual affinity for golf to further cement what is perhaps the U.S. president’s closest relationship with a foreign leader, Abe played 16 holes and had breakfast and lunch with Trump. On the menu for lunch: double cheeseburgers made with U.S. beef.

Afterward, the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo said in a statement that the two had “deepened their friendship amid a cozy atmosphere.”

And while it was unclear if there were any winners or losers in the round of golf, Abe appeared to be victorious for the time being on at least one front — trade — with Trump confirming an earlier report that he would not push a reluctant Japan for a bilateral trade deal until after July’s Upper House elections.

“Great progress being made in our Trade Negotiations with Japan,” Trump tweeted later in the day. “Agriculture and beef heavily in play. Much will wait until after their July elections where I anticipate big numbers!”

The news came after Trump told a meeting with business leaders Saturday evening that while Japan “has had a substantial edge for many, many years” on trade, Washington and Tokyo were “hard at work” negotiating a new bilateral deal that he said would benefit both countries.

“With this deal we hope to address the trade imbalance, remove barriers to United States exports, and ensure fairness and reciprocity in our relationship. And we’re getting closer,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech.

The Trump administration has been threatening Japan with new tariffs on imports of cars and auto parts on national security grounds. Trump has suggested he will impose tariffs if the U.S. can’t extract concessions from Japan. In April, Japan’s trade surplus with the U.S. surged 17.7 percent to ¥723 billion.

Later on Sunday evening, Trump, Abe and their wives sat down for a double-date dinner at a robatayaki charcoal grill restaurant in a glitzy part of Tokyo.

On Monday, the serious diplomacy was to begin, with Trump set to be the first foreign leader to meet Emperor Naruhito, who ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1 after his father’s abdication, the first in more than 200 years. Trump was also scheduled to hold more formal talks with Abe.

And on Tuesday, the final day of Trump’s visit, in what experts say is part of a concerted effort to demonstrate the allies’ bolstered ties, Trump and Abe will board the Kaga — Japan’s largest warship along with its sister ship, the Izumo — at the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, before the president returns to the United States.

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