US president Donald Trump arrived in Japan Saturday for a four-day state visit likely to be dominated by warm words and friendly images, but relatively light on substantive progress over trade.
Air Force One touched down in Japan just before 5pm local time (0800 GMT) on a sunny Tokyo afternoon and a smiling Trump descended with his wife Melania for a red-carpet greeting led by Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono.
Trump went directly to a meeting of Japanese business executives and lost little time in arguing for a trade relationship between the world’s top and number-three economy that would skew more in Washington’s favour.
‘Japan has had a substantial advantage for many, many years. But that’s OK, maybe that’s why you like us so much,’ Trump told the executives.
After a bilateral trade deal currently under negotiation has been signed, it will be ‘a little bit more fair,’ vowed the president.
Japanese and US officials hail as ‘unprecedented’ the relationship between Trump and his ‘golf buddy’, prime minister Shinzo Abe, and the pair will again find time for a round to cement their diplomatic bromance.
Just over an hour before Trump arrived, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake rattled buildings in Tokyo, with the epicentre very close to where the leaders are due to tee off.
The official centrepiece of the trip is Trump’s meeting on Monday with Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito, who only ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne at the beginning of the month following his father’s historic abdication for health reasons.
‘With all the countries of the world, I’m the guest of honour at the biggest event that they’ve had in over 200 years,’ said Trump before his departure.
But the visual highlight is more likely to be Trump’s visit on Sunday to the final day of the summer ‘basho’ or sumo tournament where he is expected to present the cup to the winner.
Japanese wrestler Asanoyama will receive the ‘president’s cup’ — weighing 60-70 pounds (27-32 kilos) and measuring 54 inches (1.4 metres) — after his win as Trump was arriving on Saturday gave him a 12-2 record and put him out of reach on the final day.
Trump’s appearance at the hallowed sumo hall has presented a logistical, security and protocol nightmare, ranging from where he sits to how he should be protected if the crowd start throwing chair pillows — as tradition dictates when a Grand Champion (yokozuna) falls.
The leaders will play golf before going to the sumo and then repair with their wives to a restaurant in Tokyo’s Roppongi entertainment district, where the menu features skewers of prime sirloin beef at 5,184 yen ($47) for two.
Abe has just recently returned from Washington and Trump himself will be coming back to Japan in just over a month for the Group of 20 leaders’ summit in the western city of Osaka.
The relationship between the former war-time foes ‘has never been stronger, has never been more powerful, has never been closer,’ Trump said.
‘This is an exciting time for commerce between the two countries that we both love.’
The formal diplomatic part of the trip is limited to a short bilateral meeting and a working lunch on Monday, after which the two leaders will brief the media.
They are also poised to meet families of people abducted by North Korea during the Cold War era to train Pyongyang’s spies, an emotive issue in Japan that Abe has pressed Trump to raise in talks with the North’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump will also address troops at a US base in Japan, highlighting the military alliance between the two allies at a time when tensions are running higher with North Korea after the failure of the Hanoi summit in February.
Hours before Trump landed, hawkish National Security adviser John Bolton told local media there was ‘no doubt’ Pyongyang’s recent missile tests had violated UN Security Council resolutions but insisted Washington is still ready to resume talks.
But analysts expect little progress on the main issue that divides Japan and the US trade.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is expected to hold talks with his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of the visit but with Abe facing upper house elections in the coming months and Trump battling China, both are likely to avoid concessions.
Some observers suspect Abe is rolling out the red carpet to present Japan as the most favourable of the countries currently engaged in trade disputes with Washington.
‘Japan’s strategy is to proceed with negotiations in a cool-headed manner,’ in contrast to the aggressive tit-for-tat tariff retaliations between the US and China, Shujiro Urata, a trade expert and professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, told AFP.
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