TOKYO — Without close friends in Asia, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be using every opportunity, even the emperor’s accession, to court President Donald Trump.
Abe is scheduling a rushed visit to Washington to meet with Trump and celebrate first lady's birthday, and then is inviting him to be first foreign leader to meet the new emperor, the two countries announced Friday.
Tokyo and Washington said that Trump and first lady Melania Trump will make a state visit to Japan at the end of May, just weeks after Crown Prince Naruhito ascends Japan’s Chrysanthemum throne. Naruhito’s 85-year-old father, Emperor Akihito, is ending his three-decade reign on April 30 by abdicating.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said receiving Trump as the first state guest of the new imperial era would “symbolize the unshakable bond of the Japan-U.S. alliance.”
Japanese officials are also arranging for Trump to watch the final day of a sumo wrestling tournament on May 26 so he can present a trophy to the winner.
Trump may also travel to a Japanese naval base in Yokosuka west of Tokyo to see a destroyer that is planned for refitting as Japan’s first postwar aircraft carrier, and play a round of golf with Abe, Japanese officials and media reports said.
Abe, experts say, is taking every opportunity to court Trump as Japan tries to stay out of the U.S. leader’s crosshairs, unlike some other world leaders who have upset him on trade and other issues.
"I'm not sure what other choices this administration, or any Japanese administration, has except to try to build the best relationship possible with Washington through face-to-face interaction," said Stephen Nagy, a politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
“I think Mr. Trump being the first to meet the emperor is a good example of that.”
Relations between Japan and two of its closest neighbors, South Korea and China, remain strained over their war history and territorial disputes.
In February, Trump said Abe had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Abe did not deny the claim, triggering criticism from opposition lawmakers that his apparent effort to please Trump was embarrassing.
Abe has managed to largely stay on good terms with Trump by assiduously avoiding criticism of the U.S. leader. "You never hear criticisms out of Japan ... that has been very characteristic of the Abe administration," Nagy said.
“I think he has done well because he hasn’t insulted Mr. Trump to cause problems.”
Abe was also the first foreign leader to meet Trump after his election in November 2016, not even waiting until he officially took office as is normal diplomatic practice, and gave him a special golf driver.
Hiro Aida, professor of global studies at Aoyama Gakuin University and an expert on Japan-U.S. relations, said Abe is jumping at the opportunity of the emperor’s succession after his ties with Trump were seen to be weakening as the U.S. leader came down hard on trade issues, demanding that Japan do more to reduce the countries’ trade imbalance.
"Inviting Trump in May to meet the new emperor would be a perfect chance for Abe to show how much he cares about Trump, while also showing their relationship off to the world," Aida said.
Abe may be also demonstrating his political power over Naruhito by sending the message that he can decide whom the emperor meets. Aida, however, said the choice of Trump amid continuing investigations into his administration's ties with Russia may hurt Naruhito's image.
Abe will travel to Washington on April 26-27, just ahead of the busy imperial succession. He and Trump are also expected to meet for a third month in a row in June when Japan hosts the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, western Japan, where the economy and trade will be the main issues.
The White House said Friday that Abe and Trump will discuss North Korean nuclear disarmament, trade and other issues during this month's visit.
After talks at the White House, Abe and his wife Akie are to have an informal dinner with Trump and Melania to celebrate the first lady’s 49th birthday.
The next day, the two leaders are expected to play golf in the outskirts of Washington, following several previous rounds they have shared in each country.