During a tense meeting at the White House in June, President Trump caught Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe off guard with a pointed remark.
The meeting, which left Abe exasperated, epitomized the paradoxical nature of Trump’s closest relationship with a foreign leader.
The two men have a tight rapport — Trump has met with Abe eight times, more than with any other counterpart, and talked to him on the phone 26 times. White House aides say they joke about golf, with Trump complimenting Abe on his agile moves while ribbing him about video footage that appears to show him falling into a sand bunker. Trump sees Abe as a savvy negotiator and a worthy counterpart — unlike many other world leaders who draw his derision. He calls Abe his “good friend.”
“I’ve never heard him [trash]-talk Abe. And you can’t say that about a lot of the world leaders,” said a U.S. official, who, like other White House, State Department and Japanese government officials interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a crucial bilateral relationship.
But in recent months, the president’s unorthodox approach to North Korea and deeply negative view of Japan’s trade practices have locked Trump and Abe in a series of agree-to-disagree stalemates, to the growing frustration of Tokyo.
The rift marks a disappointing turn for Abe, who invested heavily in a personal relationship with Trump, publicly praising his “outstanding” and “remarkable leadership,” lavishing him with a $3,800 gold-plated golf club and refusing to retaliate against his steel and aluminum tariffs even as other U.S. allies took swift reciprocal measures against American bourbon, corn and motorcycles.
Abe has little to show for his efforts. Japan was the only major U.S. ally that did not receive temporary exemption from the metals tariffs, and it now faces the prospect of new automobile tariffs — a move tantamount to economic warfare in a country where the car industry is closely linked to the national psyche.
“Abe hoped his relationship with Trump would translate into strong bilateral relations. But on both the security and economic fronts, he has faced major setbacks,” said Shihoko Goto, a Japan expert at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
The stakes are high for the Trump administration, which needs a strong alliance with Japan to offset the loss of influence from the president’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation trade pact designed to keep America rooted in the most economically vibrant region of the world.
Japanese officials say Trump misstates economic data during meetings and rebuffs advice on North Korea. In phone calls and meetings ahead of Trump’s landmark summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, Abe repeatedly advised Trump not to halt military exercises with South Korea or entertain an agreement to formally end the Korean War until North Korea takes concrete steps to denuclearize.
“Abe was completely ignored,” said a person close to the Japanese prime minister.
“His lieutenants are resigned to Trump now being uncontrollable by Jim Mattis or John Kelly and think John Bolton has even more limited influence,” he said, referring to the defense secretary, the White House chief of staff and Trump’s national security adviser.
The uncertainty has fueled concerns that Trump could overrule his top aides and put the U.S. troop presence in Okinawa or Seoul on the table to secure a nuclear deal with North Korea. Following Abe’s combative meeting with Trump in June, Japanese officials reached out to Trump confidantes to better understand where he was coming from.
U.S. officials deny that any plans are being considered to change the U.S. force posture, but they make no apology for the tough discussions between the two leaders on trade.
“The president has been frank from the start with Prime Minister Abe,” a senior administration official said. “We’re going to start taking measures that are designed to inject greater reciprocity into the relationship, that are going to force partners around the world to share the burden of upholding the international system. If we want it to continue, then it’s got to work for the United States, which is the biggest member of the grouping.”
During heated exchanges, Japanese officials say Abe waits for Trump to make his point, and finds an opening later on in the conversation to rebut him. “He understands if he categorically denies what the president says, it might hurt the president’s pride,” one Japanese diplomat said.
Another diplomat said that he could not explain Trump’s Pearl Harbor reference but added that the president relishes historical references and frequently brings up Japan's “samurai past.”
“Although disturbing, this rhetoric hardly veers from Trump’s comments against Japan on the campaign trail,” said Goto, the Japan scholar. “His views of the Japanese economy then were based on the perceptions of the 1980s and ’90s, rather than the realities of today. So it may not be a surprise if his worldview, especially of Asia, is derived back from World War II, rather than today.”
Officials on both sides of the Pacific say that the foundations of the U.S.-Japan relationship remain strong and that Abe speaks with Trump more easily and frequently than he did with President Barack Obama.
But Tokyo’s patience on key economic and security issues appears to be wearing thin.
This summer, the Japanese concealed a meeting they held with North Korea from senior U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter. The secret meeting, which has not previously been reported, took place in July in Vietnam between a top Japanese intelligence official, Shigeru Kitamura, and a senior North Korean official in charge of reunification, Kim Song Hye. Senior U.S. officials expressed irritation that Japan wasn’t forthright about the meeting, given Washington’s near-constant updates to Tokyo on its dealings with North Korea.
A Japanese official said he could not comment on meetings with intelligence officials. But officials in Tokyo have acknowledged that to negotiate the return of Japanese abductees in North Korea, they can’t rely solely on the Trump administration to lobby on Japan’s behalf.
Japan has also been more willing to break with the United States on trade. Abe personally rebuffed Trump’s overture for a bilateral trade deal during the White House meeting in June. A month later, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, categorically rejected the offer in even more forceful language. “Japan is not going to do anything with any country that harms the national interest,” Suga told reporters.
On Thursday, Japan’s trade minister publicly warned that Tokyo would retaliate if Trump follows through on his threat to impose a 25 percent tariff on Japanese automobile imports.
Abe does not regret investing in his relationship with Trump, Japanese officials said. Tokyo thinks strains would be far worse without the personal rapport, and senior officials routinely praise Mattis for helping boost defense cooperation.
“Without the presence of the U.S. military in the Far East, we can’t ensure our own security,” a Japanese official said. “That’s an absolute fact, whether we like it or not.”
Other world leaders who have invested heavily in a personal relationship with Trump, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, have made similar cost-benefit analyses despite being rebuffed by Trump on various policy priorities.
U.S. officials emphasized that although Trump’s relationships can sour, they can also improve quite dramatically. For months, the president raged against the European Union’s trade practices, only to hail major progress with the world’s largest trade bloc after cutting a largely symbolic agreement with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last month to continue negotiations.
“Despite a deterioration of their personal relationship, it’s still quite easy for Abe to ask for a phone conversation with Trump, and this happens quite regularly,” said Andrew Oros, a Japan expert at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.
Analysts attribute the latest downturn in relations to the simple reality that Abe now needs Trump much more than Trump once needed Abe. The Japanese leader has come to the president with a range of requests, including assistance on the abductees issue, tariff exemptions, and clarifications on oil import sanctions with respect to U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
But as Abe seeks his third term as prime minister, he has been unable to give Trump what he wants: unilateral concessions increasing U.S. farm goods’ access to Japanese markets, a sensitive political issue in Japan.
“The early value Trump gained from Abe’s mentorship now seems less important to him, and Trump probably sees Abe now as someone who is often asking for something but not giving Trump what he wants,” said Jim Schoff, a Japan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.