Michael Crowley is White House and national security editor for Politico. This article was based on a trip sponsored by the independent, nonprofit Foreign Press Center Japan.
TOKYO—Flying nearly 7,000 miles is not President Donald Trump’s idea of a good time. But he departed for Japan on Friday giddily anticipating what he promised a day earlier would be “the biggest event they’ve had in over 200 years”: that is, his own meeting with the country’s new emperor.
While his hosts may not view Trump’s visit as quite so momentous, it is a crescendo in the remarkable campaign of flattery and cajoling waged by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe.Story Continued Below
Trump had not yet been inaugurated when Abe hopped on a plane, uninvited, to meet with the president-elect at Trump Tower. Since then, Abe has golfed with Trump three times; visited Mar-a-Lago twice; gifted him a golf club worth nearly $3,800; dropped in on First Lady Melania Trump’s birthday dinner; and even, according to Trump himself, nominated Trump for a Nobel Prize. The two leaders have had 10 personal meetings and spoken 30 other times. “That is absolutely unprecedented,” says a senior Trump administration official. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Trump boasted that Abe had assured him of his state visit: “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.’”
The Japanese media has taken copious note of the camaraderie. A Friday article in the Japan Times noted that on his last trip to Washington, Abe “was even offered the use of Trump’s personal restroom in the White House.”
Abe no doubt appreciates the bathroom privileges. But his relentless courtship of Trump seems—to say the least—off-brand for a leader who came to power by presenting himself as a resolute nationalist, retailing a vision of a strong Japan more than any leader in decades. Prostrating himself before Trump has put him in an awkward position. Trump is personally unpopular in Japan, and even apart from that, no one likes to see Japan’s prime minister bend his behavior, or travel schedule, around other leaders. “The Japanese public does not like our leader to entertain another country’s leader,” said Koji Murata, a professor of political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
So why the desperate overtures to the U.S. president? To understand Abe’s surprising relationship to Trump is to understand the deep insecurity that has developed in Japan in recent years. With its once-powerhouse economy long-stagnant, the world-historical rise of China, which Japan’s imperial army badly abused during the war, has stoked deep alarm. North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them to Japan—and relations with South Korea, the regional power best positioned to help Tokyo counterbalance these threats, are at their lowest point in many years. Even Russia harasses Japanese airspace as part of a dispute over contested northern islands.
Trump has only made this situation more precarious for Abe and his compatriots. With its pacifist constitution and a military far smaller than its status as the world’s third-largest economy would imply, Japan needs America’s protection—and finds itself staring across the Pacific at an erratic partner easily dismissive of longtime global commitments. The fear that the U.S.-Japan alliance could be in jeopardy was one I heard from numerous government officials and academics I met during a weeklong visit to Japan earlier this year. And, they say, Abe will do what he must to maintain it, whatever the cost to his personal pride.
“People in Japan understand that Mr. Trump is quite unpredictable, and that we need to treat him in a different way,” said Murata.
“They need the relationship for their own protection,” adds Jeffrey Prescott, a former Obama White House national security council aide who served as senior Asia adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. “They’re worried about being caught out in the cold.”
When Abe visited the U.S. last year, Trump startled him with a blunt historical reference: “I remember Pearl Harbor,” Trump cracked, reportedly launching into a complaint about Japan’s economic policies. However impolitic his remark may have been, Trump is right to think that World War II continues to rule America’s relationship with Japan. But a more defining moment than the 1941 surprise attack on America’s Pacific fleet is what happened four years later in Hiroshima, when the U.S. punctuated the final days of the war by dropping an atomic bomb on the city, raising ground temperatures nearby to 5,000 degrees and instantly killing up to 80,000 people.
Today, the modest port city, also known for baseball and its symphony orchestra, has become a living monument to the horror of war, and also a place to contemplate the oddity of Japan’s continued dependency on the country that crushed it in anger nearly 75 years ago. Nine days after the blast, and after the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb, this time on Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito—whose grandson, Naruhito, Trump will visit in Tokyo on Monday—announced his country’s unconditional surrender to America. Thus began a long and fraught dependency that continues to this day.
It was an incredible twist of history when the conquered nation, emerging from a fascist nightmare, actually welcomed its new occupiers after the war. “The Americans arrived anticipating, many of them, a traumatic confrontation with fanatical emperor worshippers. They were accosted instead by women who called ‘yoo hoo’ to the first troops landing on the beaches in full battle gear, and men who bowed and asked what their conquerors wished,” writes John W. Dower in his Pulitzer Prize-wining history of postwar Japan, Embracing Defeat. William Manchester’s epic biography of Douglas MacArthur recounts the moment one of the general’s aides first stepped off a plane in a freshly-defeated Japan, which MacArther was tasked with running and rebuilding after the war: “Instantly, a mob of howling Japanese headed for him. He was reaching for his weapon when they braked to a halt, bowed, smiled, and offered him a cup of orangeade.”
Those events occurred a few months before Trump was born, so he does not actually “remember” any of them. But even though Japan has been remade since, it remains conspicuously eager to please American leaders. In large measure that is because Japan cannot properly defend itself. After World War II, Japan was demilitarized to prevent a repeat of the fascist militarism that led to its brutal conquest of much of East Asia. The U.S. oversaw the adoption of a peace constitution prohibiting a standing military—Japan technically maintains modest “self-defense forces”—and declaring that its people “forever renounce war” and “the threat or use of force as a means of settling disputes.” And in the only country to experience an atomic attack, nuclear weapons have been out of the question. Conveniently, the U.S. was happy to station troops in the country as a way of projecting power into the Asia-Pacific region, first as a check against the Soviet Union and more recently against China. America has also explicitly covered Japan with its “nuclear umbrella,” shielding it from attack with the ultimate form of deterrence.
For several decades, the arrangement made sense for a Japan that faced few credible military threats. But the 21st century has changed past assumptions with startling speed. China’s explosion of growth has led to alarming new territorial claims; Tokyo’s historic rival, which Japan raped and pillaged in the 1930s and 1940s, now has a defense budget about 10 times larger than Japan’s. Meanwhile, North Korea, whose state media has branded Abe an “Asian Hitler” has developed a large nuclear arsenal and ever-more sophisticated missiles, which it sometimes fires over Japan’s territory.
Japan’s relations with South Korea, an important political and economic power, are also at what regional experts call a 50-year low, poisoned by an ongoing dispute over what Japan owes to forced laborers and so-called “comfort women” during its wartime occupation of the Korean peninsula. Japan was scandalized in February when a South Korean legislator referred to Japan’s then-emperor, since succeeded by Naruhito, as the son of a war criminal. (One long-term nightmare here: a unified, hostile Korea.) Even relations with Russia are tense, also thanks to the legacy of World War II, in the form of a territorial dispute over remote islands most of the world has never heard of; a Japanese legislator was recently expelled from the country’s Diet after suggesting (albeit drunkenly) that war with Russia might be necessary to reclaim them.
In sum, Japan looks around and sees enemies and rivals that recall brutal Japanese occupation, and too few close friends. That leaves it as dependent on the U.S. as it has been in years.
At the same time, it is as worried as it’s ever been about whether America can be relied upon. In the Trump era, the U.S. has become inscrutable, unpredictable and potentially unreliable.
People here are keenly aware of Trump’s complaints about the cost of American bases overseas and his questions about long-standing alliances. “We’re basically protecting Japan,” Trump said as a candidate. “If we’re attacked, they do not have to come to our defense. If they’re attacked, we have to come totally to their defense. And … that’s a real problem.” Trump hasn’t spoken that way in a while, but Japanese officials have watched his continued skepticism about the costs and mission of the NATO alliance, and ongoing complaints about the expense of maintaining U.S. troops in South Korea, with great unease. In meetings with diplomats and military strategists, most of whom would only speak off the record, I was told repeatedly that a scaled back U.S. presence in Asia, perhaps as a concession in a nuclear deal with North Korea, would be a “disaster” or “nightmare.” Never mind the 50,000 troops now stationed in Japan itself.
Japan isn’t totally defenseless without its American military bodyguard. Thanks to China’s muscle-flexing, the passage of time and Abe’s nationalistic leadership, Japan in recent years has gradually been expanding its military’s size and legal capabilities. Trump officials, more than Obama ones before them, have wholeheartedly embraced the shift, which Trump will implicitly endorse this weekend when he visits a Japanese navy helicopter carrier set for an upgrade that will allow it to carry advanced American-made F-35B fighter jets.
But Japan also needs American in other ways. Its diplomats have urged the U.S. to help mediate its dispute with South Korea—though to little avail. (“In somewhat more normal times,” says Mike Green, a former top Asia official in the George W. Bush White House now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a big question around Trump’s trip would be, “What is the administration doing to patch up ties between our two closest allies, whose fight is weakening our position in Asia?”) Meanwhile Japan’s huge but deeply troubled economy, which struggles with slow growth and an aging population, is highly vulnerable to Trump’s whims on tariffs.
That’s why it’s a coup for Abe and Japan that Trump, who does not love long trips, has made the 14-hour flight to become the first foreign leader to meet the country’s newly-enthroned emperor. In recent public remarks, Trump has demonstrated only a vague understanding of the honor, while boasting that Abe has assured him it will be “100 times bigger” than the Super Bowl.
While there, Trump will award a specially-made trophy to the winner of a national sumo wrestling championship, for which he will be given a special chair in an area where even dignitaries typically sit on the floor, cross-legged, reportedly to the annoyance of some of the sport’s diehards. In a signal of U.S. military support, Trump will also deliver a speech at the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka, in southern Japan.
Abe’s flatter-Trump campaign is more than a personal whim, it is the result of extensive analysis. “The Japanese have studied Trump as thoroughly as any government, probably in the world, to try to understand him, because the U.S.-Japan alliance is so critical,” says Green. But it has involved some cost at home. During my visit, the lead headline in the Japan Times described a “grilling” the prime minister had received in the Diet over Trump’s public claim a few days earlier that Abe had written “the most beautiful five-page letter” nominating him to the Nobel Prize committee for his nuclear diplomacy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Abe couldn’t quite bring himself to confirm the notion, which seemed strange given that the talks had made little real progress, and that Abe had been a past skeptic of talking to Kim. “I’m not saying it’s untrue,” was all he would allow. According to the Washington Post, Abe has more than once been referred to as “poochi” in the country’s left-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Many Japanese officials argue, though, that Abe has made the best of an awkward situation. Trump has stopped complaining about America’s security agreement with Tokyo and—unlike the case of South Korea—hasn’t made references lately to the cost of stationing troops and equipment in Japan. Abe has helped explain to Trump how important American assets in Japan are to containing China; U.S. Navy patrols into the contested South China Sea often originate from the Japan’s Yokosuka base. Although Abe wasn’t able to prevent Trump from slapping tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminum exports, he has helped to delay potential U.S. tariffs on automobiles that Japanese officials say would create a crisis in their relationship with Washington.
Still, there is a sense of real disquiet here about what may lie ahead. One Japanese official told me that Trump is an effect, not a cause, of eroding American public support for overseas alliances and adventurism. Moreover, some Japanese worry that the character of the U.S. might be changing. Japan is coming to see America “rather differently,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to Washington who now chairs the America-Japan Society in Tokyo. “The popularity of the U.S. is decreasing,” he said, as Japanese people see an erosion of “values, respect for international institutions, and commitment to allies.”
It is unclear whether Trump will know or care about such sentiments when he greets Emperor Naruhito on Monday. But it was those values that America spent decades instilling in Japan as the U.S. rebuilt the nation it had conquered after World War II. It was a process that began in earnest when the MacArthur, having arrived in Tokyo for what would be a seven-year term as its de facto viceroy, met with Hirohito for the first time. President Harry Truman and MacArthur had decided by then that the emperor had to be preserved to help earn the trust of the defeated Japanese people. But at that point, Hirohito wasn’t sure that MacArthur wouldn’t have him executed. MacArthur later recalled giving Hirohito an American cigarette, “which he took with thanks. I noticed how his hands shook as I lighted it for him. I tried to make it as easy for him as I could, but I knew how deep and dreadful must be his agony of humiliation.”
Trump will meets Hirohito’s grandson under dramatically different circumstances. It may be that, far from humiliation, Naruhito and Abe will enjoy a sense of triumph at how skillfully they are playing to the president’s vanity. But something essential about the relationship between the U.S. will be unchanged, one that will be a source of both comfort and insecurity here for the forseeable future.
“Japan is always under the influence of the U.S.,” Murara told me. “It is always treated to be the junior partner of the U.S.”
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