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Why Japan’s first lady was probably not snubbing President Trump at the G-20 dinner

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abe, attend dinner with President Trump and first lady Melania Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., in February. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
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President Trump's exclusive interview with the New York Times on Wednesday touched on plenty of weighty topics, including the Republicans' unsuccessful attempts to pass a health-care bill and what would constitute a “red line” in the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

But one excerpt in particular set afire a corner of the Internet. In it, Trump describes a dinner for Group of 20 leaders that took place in Germany earlier this month and mentions that he had been seated next to Akie Abe, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

There had been a language barrier, Trump told Times reporter Maggie Haberman:

TRUMP: So, I was seated next to the wife of Prime Minister Abe, who I think is a terrific guy, and she’s a terrific woman but doesn’t speak English.
HABERMAN: Like, nothing, right? Like zero?
TRUMP: Like, not “hello.”
HABERMAN: That must make for an awkward seating.
TRUMP: Well, it’s hard, because you know, you’re sitting there for—
TRUMP: So the dinner was probably an hour and 45 minutes.

It wasn't long before people cried foul.

Motoko Rich, the Tokyo bureau chief for the Times, described it as “a false note.”

Early Thursday, a YouTube video was unearthed that showed Akie Abe giving a 15-minute keynote address — in English — at a 2014 symposium on coastal resilience in New York. Before long, the video was circulating on social media, often juxtaposed with Trump's comments about Abe's language ability.

By Thursday afternoon, speculation was running rampant online: Had Abe pretended not to speak English to avoid talking to Trump at the nearly two-hour dinner?

“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 Trump that go viral online, the reality is more nuanced than the Internet's fast-moving theories.

Trump was accused of not bothering to get a translation of his European allies’ words. Fake news!

The question of how proficient Abe is at English became a guessing game among Japanese journalists and diplomats in Washington, as well as some Japan hands in U.S. think tanks.

Though no one could say for certain what her fluency level was, most agreed that what had been characterized as a possible political snub had more likely been a convergence of Abe's limited English abilities and a desire not to misspeak.

It is, of course, false that Abe speaks “zero” English. At the very least, it's unthinkable that the Japanese first lady, who previously worked at Dentsu, Japan's largest international public relations company, doesn't know the word “hello” — even if she may not have said it to Trump at the G-20 dinner.

But it's clear in the video of her 2014 keynote address that Abe was consulting a script and, even then, occasionally stumbling over a word or two. Abe has regularly accompanied her husband to Washington through his stints as prime minister, and footage from her past visits shows that she has almost always used an interpreter when in the United States.

In 2015, she and then-first lady Michelle Obama visited Great Falls Elementary in Virginia, where they were welcomed by students who were part of the school's Japanese immersion program. While at the school, Abe used an interpreter and addressed the students in Japanese.

In speeches at a 2014 Womenomics forum and a 2015 Finding Balance summit, Abe gave her remarks in Japanese and had an interpreter translate them for the audience. She did not speak English during a 2014 interview with The Washington Post.

BBC News noted on Friday that Abe's “previous diplomatic encounters have almost always been through an interpreter and when the BBC requested an interview with her in the past, they said she would only accept if it is conducted in Japanese.”

Abe again visited Washington in February, when her husband met with Trump at the White House. Though she made stops at Gallaudet University and at the Japanese Embassy, Abe did not make public remarks. She and her husband spent the ensuing weekend with the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s resort near Palm Beach, Fla.

Several people interviewed by The Post said they had never heard Abe speak English and speculated that she would not feel comfortable having more than a simple conversation. Most people interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not spoken to Abe directly or extensively and did not have firsthand knowledge.

“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.”

A former aide to President Barack Obama said in a text message that he “never heard her speak English with Mrs. Obama.”

During her 2015 visit to the United States, Abe met with a small group of Americans who had taught English in Japan through a government-sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching program.

Nicole Uehara, an American who helped set up the event and participated in it, said Abe did not speak in English during the meeting and instead made remarks through an interpreter, who was seated behind her. Uehara said she was told that the Japanese first lady does know some English but is not fluent.

At formal multilateral 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 email. He said the story has not made a big splash in Japan since Trump’s interview was published late Wednesday. “Even the second meeting between Trump and Putin was not a big story in Japan,” he said.

An American assistant at the Washington bureau of another Japanese television network said the consensus in his office “is that she can’t really speak it. She can definitely say ‘hello’ or greet people in English, but can she hold a conversation beyond pleasantries? We're not so sure.”

At the Japanese Embassy in Washington, one diplomat called Trump’s remarks about Abe a “strange story” and added that — although he has seen the video on social media of Abe reciting the coastal-resilience speech in English — he wasn’t sure about her English skills.

“Are you asking Spicer about this?” he asked, referring to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

At Thursday's daily briefing, which was handled by Spicer deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders, no one asked.

On Friday, the BBC reported that Japan's Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to provide an official comment, citing the private nature of Abe's conversation (or lack thereof) with Trump.

“In the meantime, we acknowledge in that interview that President Trump stated that he enjoyed the evening with her, and she is really a lovely woman,” the spokesman told the BBC.

The Japan Times reported Friday that a Foreign Ministry official said Abe had an interpreter with her when she sat down next to Trump for the dinner.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Akie Abe attended the English-speaking International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo from kindergarten through high school. She attended a different, Japanese-speaking Sacred Heart school in Tokyo. The story has been updated.

Anna Fifield contributed to this report.  

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