The astonishing election last November of Donald Trump as president of the United States triggered various reactions from political leaders around the world. Some pulled back, others dug in and some stayed quiet. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plunged ahead.
The prime minister called Trump shortly after his victory to congratulate him and then arranged to stop by Trump Tower for a visit on Abe’s way to Peru. The two leaders got along well and Trump invited Abe to visit the U.S. in early February, first at the White House and then at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence visited Japan during the first months of the Trump presidency.
Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, said his country’s early and aggressive engagement with the Trump administration reflects basic diplomatic precepts: understand the facts on the ground, deal directly with important interlocutors and then forge a strategy based on specific insights and concrete information.
“The meetings between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Japan were very successful. It was very important for the prime minister to get to know the new president. Getting to know people is an important part of diplomacy,” Sasae said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.
“When they met in February, they spent many hours together, both in Washington and also in Florida, at meetings, lunches, dinners and playing golf. They spent all this time mostly by themselves,” he said. “The official relationship is important. But when you don’t have any personal relationship, that’s quite a dry relationship, so if you combine both official and personal, that’s ideal.
“Of course we hear a lot about President Trump, reading all these articles about him, but I think the fundamental idea was to go in without having any preconceived notions or perceptions,” he added, admitting that his country had concerns about Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign. “That’s why you need to go straight to the heart of person you are dealing with.”
Understanding the new occupant of the White House is especially vital to the Japanese, who have had a long and positive relationship with the U.S. since the end of World War II. Sasae did not comment directly on Trump’s polarizing campaign. However, several of Trump’s themes had to be disquieting, if not alarming, to Japanese leaders.
The Republican candidate often criticized America’s trade deficit with Japan, accusing the country of blocking American automobiles from entering its market, and complained that the yen was kept artificially low. Trump’s protectionist policies also doomed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), leaving Japan in a lurch after years of trade negotiations — and rival China to fill the economic void. Trump was also critical of America’s security relationship with Japan, arguing that Japan was not pulling its weight. He suggested the possibility of cutting military aid and even floated the idea of Tokyo developing its own nuclear weapons arsenal to protect against North Korean aggression — an idea that would go directly against Japan’s pacifist constitution, which Washington helped craft.
Despite the harsh words, Japanese leaders were proactive. The prime minister took an open mind and a gold-plated golf driver to his first visit with Trump. Analysts have credited Abe for deftly dealing with the unpredictable billionaire mogul/reality TV star.
“Whether out of instinct or a careful reading of Trump’s personality, Abe has concluded that politics with Trump will be personal,” wrote Michael Auslin, an expert on Japan at the American Enterprise Institute, in a February essay in Foreign Affairs. “Thus, he offered with alacrity to meet Trump just days after his election, flying to New York in a bid to get Trump to look him in the eye and size him up. Given the lukewarm reception that Trump received from other heads of government, Abe’s outreach was all the more welcome…. Abe understands that you have to be willing to make deals with a dealmaker.”
When Trump and Abe met in Washington in February, the president lavished praise on the prime minister and the relationship between the U.S. and Japan. “The bond between our two nations, and the friendship between our two peoples, runs very, very deep,” Trump said at a White House press conference. “This administration is committed to bringing those ties even closer. We are committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control, and to further strengthening our very crucial alliance.”
He also touted his personal connection with Abe. “We have a very, very good bond — very, very good chemistry. I’ll let you know if it changes, but I don’t think it will,” he said.
For his part, Abe emphasized the importance of the bilateral relationship, noting that this was his fourth visit to the U.S. in six months. He praised Trump’s “uphill struggle” to get elected and said his victory showed the “dynamism of democracy.” Abe added that Japanese businesses are poised to contribute to Trump’s economic agenda, noting that in 2016, more than $150 billion of new investment flowed from Japan into the United States. “With President Trump taking on the leadership, I’m sure there will be major-scale infrastructure investment … including the fast-speed train.”
The public back home overwhelming approved of Abe’s overtures, although some found his charm offensive — at a time when Trump seemed to be offending world leaders left and right — to be deferential. Regardless, the courtship appears successful. The two nations released a joint statement that addressed many of Japan’s concerns on security and economic matters. Sasae said the declaration contained “all the essential elements to support Asia-Pacific security and the bilateral alliance.”
The U.S. pledged “unwavering” support to defend Japan “through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional.” It also affirmed that America’s mutual security treaty covered the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan, and opposed “any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.” The statement also urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and warned it not to take any further provocative actions.
The ambassador called the North Korea challenge “very acute” and said “we are basically in agreement with the United States to step up deterrence.”
Likewise, Sasae said Japan supports increased American military preparedness in the region to send a strong message to China that it cannot unilaterally build on disputed territory in the South China Sea. At the same time, he said that Japan welcomes “the peaceful rise of China” and wants to engage the communist leadership “because nobody is willing to make an enemy out of China.”
To confront regional threats, Sasae pledged that Japan would do its part by investing in military resources and increasing cooperation with the U.S. Abe has long sought to rewrite Japan’s World War II-era constitution and expand its armed forces, which are restricted to a purely self-defensive role, into a more conventional army. To that end, Abe has been steadily boosting the country’s defense systems. Reuters also recently reported that Japan plans to send its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May — its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War II. In addition, lawmakers have been debating whether Japan could launch a pre-emptive missile strike on North Korea if threatened by an attack.
On the economic front, the joint statement released during Abe’s visit pointed out that the U.S. and Japan represent 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and cited the need for “free and fair trade,” vowing to set “high trade and investment standards.” It acknowledged the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP, but said the two nations would still seek to accomplish shared objectives. “This will include discussions between the United States and Japan on a bilateral framework.”
Sasae said Japan has not abandoned its support for the TPP but concedes that the Trump government views it very differently. The sweeping accord sought to remove trade barriers among 12 Pacific-Rim nations, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan and Australia, that together represent around 40 percent of global output and a third of world trade. After years of delicate negotiations, Trump withdrew from the pact shortly after taking office, making good on a campaign promise to blue-collar American workers who feared the deal would take away jobs (also see “After U.S. Withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership, Now What?” in the April 2017 issue of The Diplomat).
Free trade advocates criticized the move, arguing that American businesses will lose out on tariff-free access to the fastest-growing region in the world, while China gains an opening to cement its economic dominance. But Trump counters that he can negotiate better deals one on one with nations.
Sasae said Japan is ready to listen to the administration’s views on trade, although it believes the fundamentals of TPP are solid.
“We believe the geostrategic thrust of TPP is relevant today and in the future,” he said. “The question is, how do you combine this strategic component of TPP together with a possible American bilateral approach, and I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Japan and the U.S., in fact, account for over 75 percent of the GDP of TPP member states, and the ambassador noted that there are many bilateral components ingrained into the agreement. Japan was the last country to enter into negotiations, which forced the country to pry open its agricultural and automotive markets.
But those painful compromises are why some experts say a bilateral deal is easier said than done. Japan already made tough concessions to join TPP, which gave it access to 11 markets. It would be reluctant to make those same compromises to access just one market, especially because American carmakers and farmers are likely to demand more than Japan is willing to offer. Indeed, Sasae said multilateral agreements have certain advantages, including the streamlining of rules among different countries, “because rules are stronger when you have more participants.”
On that note, he said TPP could have become a standard-bearer in the region that encouraged China to adhere to a more rules-based system. “When you face the future of Asia-Pacific trade and investment, obviously you can’t exclude the presence of China,” Sasae said. “And their rules are not sufficient. We all know it. So when you have to deal with China in terms of what are the best rules, rules have to be coming from our side.”
Japan appears ready to salvage the deal, holding renewed negotiations with trade officials with the 11 remaining members, minus the U.S., this month, although Sasae demurred when asked if Japan would pick up the TPP mantle.
“We haven’t really come to a decision yet. We agree with the Trump administration that we will enter into an economic dialogue,” the ambassador said, explaining that the U.S.-Japan dialogue will have three pillars: macroeconomic and structural issues; specific sectors such as energy and transportation; and trade and investment. The talks will be chaired by Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Pence, who visited Japan and the region in late April.
According an April 14 brief by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Tokyo views Vice President Pence as a much friendlier figure on bilateral economic issues than other members of the Trump administration. As a U.S. congressman, Pence was supportive of free trade, and as governor of Indiana, he made two trips to Japan to court investment. Indiana has the highest Japanese investment per capita among U.S. states, and Japanese companies employ more than 50,000 workers in Indiana,” wrote scholars Matthew Goodman, Michael Green and Nicholas Szechenyi. “The economic dialogue framework was proposed by the Japanese side, and the Trump administration originally responded by proposing that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and National Trade Council director Peter Navarro lead for the United States, but Abe prevailed on the president to tap Pence since he would be Aso’s counterpart in protocol terms.”
Sasae himself met Pence years ago when he addressed the Japan-America Society of Indiana’s annual gala, which was attended by the then-governor of Indiana. In his remarks, Sasae explained the Abe government’s economic reforms and linked these reforms to the then-emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he called a transformational idea to establish a “21st-century economic order in the Asia-Pacific region.” He described the TPP as more than a trade agreement. “TPP opens markets and opens minds. The important thing is mindset.”
Sasae saw a lot of America last year. He and his wife Nobuko took a cruise to Alaska. The ambassador attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. These trips allowed him to gauge the election-year sentiment that so sharply divided the country. In a September speech in St. Louis, he observed that Americans seemed to have turned inward.
“This concerns me a great deal,” he said, lamenting that few were defending the importance of America’s global leadership or touting the benefits of international trade. Sasae said U.S. trade with TPP nations resulted in more than 4 million American jobs and boosted the overall economy. Moreover, during the five-year period following the 2008 financial crisis, exports contributed to one-third of America’s economic growth. These facts, he said, did not support the narrative that international trade is causing companies to shut factories and shed jobs. And he repeated his conviction that the TPP is not just a trade agreement but also a “strategic blueprint.”
Sasae, a veteran diplomat who understands the United States, recognizes that the election of Trump and the birth of his highly unconventional administration have created a new dynamic for Japan and every other country in the world. Sasae’s instinct is to listen intently, watch closely, speak cautiously and make judgments carefully. “There is a new public mood in America and we’re trying to adjust to the new mood. We want to understand America’s role in the world and its new agenda,” he told us.
Sasae joined Japan’s foreign ministry in 1974 after he completed his studies at Tokyo University. He studied for a year at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1975 and served at the Japanese Embassy in Washington in the 1980s, with subsequent postings in London and Geneva. Most of his career has been spent in Tokyo, where he steadily ascended the diplomatic ranks. He served as executive assistant to the prime minister for foreign affairs in 2000; deputy director-general in the Foreign Policy Bureau in 2001; director-general in the Economic Affairs Bureau in 2002; deputy minister for foreign affairs in 2008; and vice minister for foreign affairs in 2010. Sasae became Japan’s ambassador to the United States in 2012.
During his time in the United States, he has worked with Japan’s network of 14 consulates, dozens of U.S.-Japan societies and associations, and more than 400 sister-city relationships between the two nations. He has visited communities and met scores of government officials and business leaders. For example, in 2014, when the ambassador traveled to Indiana, he conferred with local leaders and even visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He donned a racing suit, drove with race car legend Mario Andretti and touted the exploits of Takuma Sato, a Japanese race car driver. “Now if we could just get a Japanese horse in the Kentucky Derby,” he quipped.
On a more serious note, Sasae’s time in Washington has coincided with major events in the bilateral relationship. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in May 2016, and Abe traveled to Pearl Harbor in December 2016. Trump has been invited to visit Japan this year.
As he explains his nation to Americans, Sasae argues that Japan has made significant progress after more than two decades of stagnant economic growth and mounting debt. He believes Abe’s plan to bolster the Japanese economy through fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms — also referred to as “Abenomics” — is bearing fruit, crediting it with, among other things, reducing unemployment and increasing corporate profits.
“Everything is relative, but the important economic indicators are positive. There is positive growth but we’re not satisfied. The direction is a sound one. We are confident we will continue to grow. I’m pretty optimistic about the direction of Japan is heading. But reform is an evolving process. There is not an end point for reform,” he said.
The ambassador said Japan will focus on structural changes in the economy, including making labor markets more flexible and encouraging women to participate more fully in the economy. He said Japan’s looming demographic challenge is forcing it to think hard about immigration.
“There is always a debate in a society about the role of immigrants…. The policy so far is to welcome workers with skills,” he said.
Sasae noted that technological advances such as robotics and automation will also prop up an economy threatened by an aging labor force, as will “unleashing women’s power” by offering working parents better childcare and more maternity leave.
“Societal changes are gradually taking shape,” said Sasae, who served in the U.S. in the 1980s at a time when Japan was viewed as America’s economic enemy. Today, the ambassador says ties are dramatically different. While the U.S. still had a nearly $70 billion trade deficit with Japan last year, Japan is the second-largest source of foreign direct investment in the United States, and Japanese auto investment alone supports an estimated 1.5 million American jobs.
Speaking in St. Louis last year, the ambassador pointed out that the top five U.S.-made vehicles all come from Toyota or Honda. “I would bet that most people here in the Show Me State do not know that Missouri has a trade surplus of over $200 million. Or that Hoosiers know that Indiana ranks eighth in manufacturing exports compared with the size of its economy,” he told the crowd. “I genuinely hope we do not see a debate in the United States in the years ahead on the question, ‘Who lost Asia?’ If so, its start will be counted from the demise of the TPP agreement.”
But the ambassador is careful not to directly criticize Trump for pulling out of the trade accord or questioning the value of alliances that Washington has forged over the decades. A polished diplomat, Sasae is more inclined to offer Americans encouragement than advice. When pressed, he gives both: “Keep engaged. We want to see America involved in the world. America is great. It can be even greater.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.