U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive aboard Air Force One at Tokyo Haneda Airport in Tokyo, May 25, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive aboard Air Force One at Tokyo Haneda Airport in Tokyo, May 25, 2019.

TOKYO - U.S. President Donald Trump has arrived in Japan for a four-day state visit heavy on ceremony and sports, although a senior White House official promises "there'll be some substantive things to announce."

Trump went directly from the airport on Saturday evening to the U.S. ambassador’s official residence to address several dozen top Japanese business leaders.

"The relationship with Japan and the United States I can say for a fact has never been stronger, never been more powerful, never been closer,” the president told the executives. “This is a very exciting time for commerce between the two countries that we both love."

Trump expressed hope the United States and Japan will soon be able to reach a new trade pact.

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a Japanese bus
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a Japanese business leaders event with U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty in Tokyo, May 25, 2019.

“Japan has had a substantial advantage for many, many years, but that's OK, maybe that's why you like us so much,” said Trump, adding that the trade imbalance strongly in Japan’s favor for decades would become “a little bit more fair.”  

The overall visit, however, will focus more on photo opportunities rather than deal-making and that may be intentional on the part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has forged a close relationship with Trump. The two have met or spoken more than 40 times, which is "absolutely unprecedented," according to the White House.

Keio University Professor Tomohiko Taniguchi, the prime minister’s primary foreign policy speechwriter, envisions that apart from the visit’s ceremonial aspects, there will be little of substance. But Taniguchi points out Abe is the only foreign leader with whom “Trump can spend hours and hours speaking without prepared talking points, which in itself bears strategic value for Japanese diplomacy.”

Asked by VOA if the trip would result in any deliverables on trade and defense cooperation, a senior U.S. official pointing to a scheduled Monday Trump-Abe news conference replied, “they’ll have some very interesting announcements concerning the range of the relationship.”

?‘Trump Cup’

The president is to attend a banquet with the new emperor, golf with the prime minister and view the ancient sport of sumo — awarding what has been nicknamed the “Trump Cup” to a champion wrestler. The cup (officially known as the President’s Cup) is about 137 centimeters  tall, according to a senior White House official, and "weighs 27 to 32 kilograms.”

One goal of Abe’s during their time together in Tokyo is to ensure Trump is committed to next month’s Group of 20 leaders summit Japan will host in Osaka.

“The meeting will test Japan’s ability to act as a global statesman and champion the need for multilateralism,” says Shihoko Goto, the Wilson Center’s deputy director for geoeconomics and senior associate for Northeast Asia. “Making sure the United States is fully engaged in the G-20 summit will certainly be a key factor for Japan to achieve that goal.”

President Donald Trump poses for photos with G7 le
President Donald Trump poses for photos with G7 leaders at the Ancient Greek Theater of Taormina during the G7 Summit, May 26, 2017, in Taormina, Italy.

Abe also is eager to get Trump’s commitment not to skip this year’s Group of Seven summit in France.

“It’s critical for Japan’s survival that the U.S. uphold the international institutions built after the war,” says Michael Green, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Abe hopes to demonstrate “nobody works better with this president or the United States than Japan,” Green added. “That’s an important message for Asia, which has seen mixed signals out of Washington over the last decade about whether China or Japan would be the most important partner for the U.S.”

Both leaders also desire an economic pact following the U.S. withdrawal from the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

“Japan’s priority is to have a bilateral trade deal with the United States that would not impede its exports,” Goto, of the Wilson Center, told VOA. “In addition, Japanese businesses are looking for stability in trade rules, and certainly stability in U.S.-China relations that would allow them to make investment decisions in the longer term.”

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trum
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are greeted by Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono and his wife, Kaori Kono, after arriving at Haneda International Airport for a state visit, May 25, 2019, in Tokyo.

Golf, sumo

Abe will have ample opportunity to lobby Trump about the global world order and trade while they golf and then sit side by side close to the sumo ring before their formal summit on Monday.

No immediate breakthrough in the trade arena is foreseen by analysts.

“Exactly how and when agriculture and autos is going to be addressed is still very much up for debate,” said Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at CSIS.

There is anxiety among Japanese officials that Trump could lash out at his hosts and reinforce his tough stance on trade.

“My gut is that he will be, in this context, on his best behavior because of the pomp and circumstance of this visit and the golf and all the rest of it,” predicted Goodman, a former White House and National Security Council staffer.

Trump on Monday also meets with Emperor Naruhito and attends a state banquet.

The U.S. president is Japan’s first formal guest of the Reiwa era, which began May 1 with the new monarch ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne, succeeding his elderly father, Akihito, who abdicated.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's (JMSDF) latest
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's (JMSDF) latest Izumo-class helicopter carrier DDH-184 Kaga is moored at a naval base in Sasebo, on the southwest island of Kyushu, Japan April 6, 2018.

?Yokosuka naval base

Trump and Abe on Tuesday, according to a Japanese defense source, are to inspect a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier at the Yokosuka naval base, putting the final focus for the president's visit on the close military relationship between the two countries, which were on opposing sides during World War II.
The 250-meter-long Izumo-class vessel named the Kaga is categorized as a helicopter carrier but could be modified to launch the short take-off and landing version of the F-35B supersonic stealth fighter jet.
"The Japanese have not decided officially yet whether they'll procure the F-35B, but there's an awful lot of interest. I'm sure Donald Trump would like to sell them," Green tells VOA. "The impression the Abe government had was that the Obama administration was much more ambivalent about all this stuff."
Trump's enthusiasm signals "to the region and to the Japanese public, and the American public, that the U.S. is fully supportive of what Abe is trying to do on security," adds Green, a former National Security Council staffer.
At Yokosuka, Trump also is scheduled to address U.S. military personnel aboard a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship while it's still Memorial Day back home, specifically noting the "global nature of the partnership between Japan and the United States," according to a senior White House official.