The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Japanese officials cling to Trump’s history as a businessman

The front pages of Japanese newspapers in Tokyo on November 10. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images)

TOKYO — President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory has left government officials around the world — including here in Japan — scrambling to make sense of the most uncertain moment in U.S. political history since the election of Ronald Reagan, if not before. They have been hanging on every tweet.

The emerging view — or, more likely, hope — among many top Japanese officials is that Trump is a pragmatist willing to reverse himself. “In one of his Twitter entries,” noted Tomohiko Taniguchi, a close adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a few days after the election, “he denied what he said during the election campaign about how South Korea and Japan should go nuclear.”

The alternative — that Trump actually meant many of the things he said in the presidential race — seems unthinkable.

Earlier that day, I sat down with another senior Japanese government official. His tone suggested optimism — or was it disbelief? “The strong point of President Trump is that people do not expect a kind of consistency,” he said. “The president is decided, but they can change the policy any time.”

Nowhere is sizing up Trump a higher priority than in Japan, a country with strong strategic and economic ties with the United States that the president-elect, if some of his campaign rhetoric is taken literally, might erode. Abe will meet Trump in New York Thursday, which will be among the first face-to-face meetings the president-elect will have with a foreign leader.

“The president in office is the one that the Japanese government must work with,” Taniguchi said, explaining why he and other officials have been clinging to “encouraging” early indications that Trump would not act on much of his campaign rhetoric, sparse though they are.

“He appears to be a person who is very much flexible after winning the election,” Taniguchi said. He predicted that Trump, when offered the facts, would see the importance of the large U.S. military base in Okinawa. Taniguchi and other Japanese officials have begun casting their message in terms Trump may appreciate. “It is almost like a real estate business — what matters here is location, location and location,” he said, arguing that the Japanese archipelago is an ideal place to forward deploy the U.S. troops that have for decades secured a region vital to American prosperity.

“He is a businessman,” official after official has said to me, suggesting Japanese elites see his experience in the private sector as a sign he will listen to reason. Trump condemned trade deals during the campaign, yet Japanese government operatives have gamely expressed optimism about what the president-elect will do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pointing out that the benefits to the United States are obvious and that Trump’s past criticisms of the deal were overblown — though these facts have not seemed to matter so far in the warped debate over the proposed pact.

“We have a year-and-a-half window of opportunity,” Taniguchi said, referring to the timeline for approving the TPP. “So Mr. Trump can take time and ponder seriously.”

Part of Japanese officials’ thinking seems to be that Trump could not possibly intend to act on his promises, because they would be ruinous to the country and to him politically. “If he can get along for the first four years, the chances of him getting reelected are much higher,” one senior official told me. “If he carries out the policy he already stated during the campaign, I think the chances will be lower.”

Trump knows that — doesn’t he? He didn’t really mean all those things he said — did he?

Not everyone is optimistic on this side of the Pacific. Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, a decades-long veteran of the Japanese government and diplomat, warned of “autarky” — that is, closing the country’s economy from the rest of the world — “that will bring your great country down.”

“I am 76 years old, an old guy who is reading your paper and the New York Times and watching American TV here . . . because I am so concerned,” he said. “Heartbroken.”

Apparently he has not yet progressed — regressed? — to stalking Twitter for the president-elect’s official word on how the world will change.

Credibility of the kind the United States has in Japan takes decades to earn. We may soon see how quickly it can be replaced by disillusionment.