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From the emperor to sumo wrestling, Abe harnesses Japan’s traditions to impress Trump

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks to reporters after speaking by phone with President Trump in February. Abe is rolling out the red carpet for Trump’s visit this week. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

TOKYO — Perhaps no world leader has been as assiduous in flattering President Trump’s ego as Shinzo Abe. But Japan’s prime minister may have just outdone himself, pressing the country’s time-honored traditions into service for the American president’s upcoming trip.

It’s a strategy that raises eyebrows here, even as it receives a degree of sympathy. Japan’s leader is viewed as doing what needs to be done to maintain his country’s most important foreign alliance and keep a mercurial president in check. 

Trump’s four-day state visit, which will begin Saturday, comes amid a trade war with China, the collapse of nuclear talks with North Korea and rumbling trade tensions with Japan — and ahead of a Group of 20 meeting in Osaka in June, when Abe will play host to Trump and other world leaders.

During this trip, Trump will not only become the first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, but he also will take ringside seats at the first sumo tournament of the new imperial era, presenting a specially made “Trump Cup” to the winner, officials say.

Discussing an upcoming visit to Japan, President Trump said April 26 that he might attend a sumo wrestling match, adding, "I've always found that fascinating." (Video: The Washington Post)

In a further accommodation, special seats will be placed for Trump and first lady Melania Trump right by the ring — in a place where spectators normally sit cross-legged on mats. That has spread ripples of unease through this most conservative of sports. Normally, VIPs sit in a special enclosure set back and above the ring.

“Even if the guest is the president of our ally, the issue is about a state sport whose history and traditions people pay a lot of attention to,” Akihiro Terada, a 64-year-old businessman, wrote in a letter to the Mainichi newspaper. 

Japan to the world: Call him Abe Shinzo, not Shinzo Abe

Japanese officials defended the seating plan as extending hospitality to a foreign guest, and said Trump’s mere attendance will help bring sumo to a wider audience. “It will make Japanese people feel closer to the president himself and allow Prime Minister Abe to introduce his close friend to the Japanese people,” said an official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the bilateral relationship.

Trump says he agreed to come only because Abe told him that the imperial succession in Japan is “about 100 times bigger” for Japanese people than the Super Bowl is for Americans.

Many people think it is entirely appropriate for the leader of Japan’s closest ally to be the first to visit the new emperor. But others find it jarring to see an institution so tied up with the dignity of the state employed in the service of a president who many Japanese view as lacking in dignity.

“A fair number of Japanese, especially the conservative ones, attach a great deal of importance to the pomp and decorum and dignity of the imperial institution,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Abe’s willingness to use that as a bait to curry personal favor with Trump is seen with anxiety, I am sure even by people in policy circles.”

The meeting itself will be closely scripted. Trump met Naruhito’s father, Emperor Akihito, in 2017, without doing anything more untoward than tapping him lightly on the arm as they spoke.

Trump’s visit will, not surprisingly, involve a game of golf. It has been a staple of his relationship with Abe since the prime minister gave him a $3,755 gold-plated golf club shortly after he was elected. 

Trump also has been invited to tour a Japanese aircraft carrier, a flat-top used for helicopters until now, that is being modified to handle a new order of U.S. ­vertical-takeoff F-35B fighters. It is a visit designed to remind Trump of Japan’s willingness not only to help defend itself but also, and most important, to buy American military hardware to do so.

“Abe has a very good handle on the kind of things Trump likes, and he understands the imagery of Trump as a great leader,” said Daniel Sneider, an East Asia specialist at Stanford University, who calls the schedule masterful. “It’s one piece of imagery after another, all of which are calculated to send messages that Trump wants to see.”

Abe’s latest attempts to play to Trump’s ego appeared to be working. At a White House event Thursday, Trump responded to a question from a reporter about trade tensions with Japan by boasting about his upcoming meeting with the new emperor.

“It’s a very big thing going on with the emperor, something that hasn’t happened in over 200 years,” Trump said, referring to the abdication of the emperor’s father, Akihito. “I am the guest, meaning the United States is the guest, but Prime Minister Abe said to me very specifically, ‘You are the guest of honor. There’s only one guest of honor.’  I represent the country. Of all the countries in the world, I’m the guest of honor at the biggest event they’ve had in over 200 years.

Japanese Emperor Naruhito formally took up his post on May 1, a day after the abdication of his father, and pledged to work for the unity of the people. (Video: Reuters)

Despite Trump’s bombast, and Abe’s willingness to appease him, his visit will not generate the extreme reactions one might see elsewhere, such as Britain, where the president’s visit last summer was met by protesters flying a “Trump baby” balloon. Longtime political commentator Shiro Tasaki describes the mood in Japan as one more of curiosity than revulsion.

Surveys by Pew Global Research found that 30 percent of Japanese people had confidence in Trump in 2018, higher than President George W. Bush’s score in 2008, and well above the 6 percent recorded in Mexico or 9 percent in France. Barack Obama, however, had a 78 percent favorable rating in Japan in 2016, the year he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima since the end of World War II.

As inflammatory and disruptive as Trump is viewed in the United States, his norm-busting behavior does not always resonate here. Japanese journalists said they often avoid mentioning his incendiary tweets because they are difficult to explain but also out of a sense of decorum.

Akira Ikegami, a journalist who wrote the afterword in the Japanese edition of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” said the book, a bestseller in the United States, did not do well in Japan, as there was limited interest in lurid details about dysfunction in Trump’s White House.

Furthermore, many Japanese people are not fired up by the issues that energize Trump critics elsewhere — such as building a wall along the border with Mexico, said Kumi Yokoe, an author of books about Obama and Trump.

“He is seen as avuncular,” she said. “It’s different among the elite who care deeply about democracy. They see him critically, don’t accept what he argues for and say so out loud.”

Many of those critics find a home in the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, the nation’s second-largest newspaper, which publishes a weekday column of ­“senryu” — short, haiku-like ­poems. It has featured about 150 about Trump since late 2015. 

In contrast to haikus, which tend to be serious, senryu aim for a more cynical and humorous tone, and the poems have offered a window into changing public views toward Trump — and Abe.

Kaori Ozawa, an editor who oversees the page, said people initially were shocked by Trump’s unrestrained behavior, rhetorical bombast and excessive pride in his own wealth. But the focus has gradually shifted to what many people view as Abe’s fawning over Trump, and what that reveals about Japan’s relationship with the United States.

Contributors have mocked Abe, referring to him more than once as “poochi,” a common Japanese name for a dog, while Trump has been called “the boss.” 

To a degree, Ozawa said, the Japanese have become more critical of Abe, while content to poke fun at Trump. Some people may even consider Trump exciting because he speaks his mind.

But in many ways, it is notable how little blowback there has been for Abe, experts say.

Sophia University’s Nakano says that’s partly because Japan’s mainstream media is relatively tame, and there is no tradition of political satire. So when Abe falls in a bunker while playing golf with Trump, or nominates Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, one might expect that comedians and the public would be laughing at him. Few do.

Another reason is that Abe’s strategy is viewed by business leaders and political allies as necessary, and reasonably effective, in defending Japan’s national interest — even as Trump raises threats to impose tariffs on Japanese vehicles.

“People understand that Abe was dealt the most difficult American president ever,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Tokyo’s Temple University, and “that managing typhoon Trump isn’t easy, and that Abe’s doing his best.”

Nakamura reported from Washington. Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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