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Donald Trump Building the Closest American-Japanese Relationship Ever?

“During my visit to Japan last fall, I met with Japanese families who endured the terrible heartbreak of having their loved ones abducted by the North Korean regime,” Donald Trump said at Mar-a-Lago Wednesday after two days of meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We want to see these families reunited as soon as possible. And I know for a fact that it’s one of the truly most important things on Shinzo’s mind. We talk about it often. So important to you, and we’re going to do everything possible to have them brought back and bring them back to Japan. I gave you that promise.”

That promise [1] was perhaps the most important thing Abe got from the summit at Trump’s ornate Palm Beach resort this week.

North Korea’s three Kim leaders have committed many crimes, but the one that has gripped the Japanese public for decades has been the abduction of their country’s nationals, from Japan and elsewhere. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father of the current leader, ordered the kidnappings of foreigners to give their agents language instruction from native speakers.

Kim Jong-il, in an apparent bid to obtain Japanese aid, tried to admit to the crimes and release five abductees in 2004, but the effort was mishandled and backfired badly.


The issue drives Tokyo’s dealings with Pyongyang to this day, in large part due to the persistent efforts of Sakie Yokota, mother of one abductee Megumi Yokota, who was 13 at the time she was taken from her seaside home in 1977. Trump, during his November trip to Tokyo, met with family members, including Ms. Yokota.

Trump’s predecessors have talked about the abductee problem when prompted by Japanese prime ministers, but no American leader has done much. The issue, when compared to Pyongyang’s development of weapons of mass destruction, hasn’t been considered important by Washington policymakers, who have ignored Tokyo’s views on this issue during the drawn-out Six-Party talks.

As a result, Japan hasn’t received much international support on the matter of their abductees, even though the Kims took nationals of other countries as well. For instance, it appears North Korea was behind the abduction of American David Sneddon, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances [2] in southwestern China in 2004. Pyongyang almost certainly snatched a number of South Koreans, too.

Trump, from his heartfelt remarks Wednesday, appears ready to take up Japan’s cause, even though it might complicate negotiations with North Korea. He understands this is something the public there would very much respond to. As he said Wednesday to Japanese broadcaster NHK, “Abduction is a very important issue for me because it’s very important to your prime minister.”

Trump has come a long way in gauging the overall strategic importance of Japan to the United States. In March 2016 on the campaign trail, he talked about walking away from America’s alliances in Asia, and specifically mentioned the Japanese one.

Trump as president has a different perspective, as he should. An ambitious and bold Beijing is taking on America across the board. The United States therefore needs all the friends it can get. That’s why Washington needs to assure Tokyo that whatever agreement it reaches with Pyongyang over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Japan’s security in the region will be at the top of its agenda.

That’s because Japan is America’s “cornerstone” ally in Asia. This alliance transcends today’s current events for two reasons. First, for about 150 years, Washington has drawn America’s Western defense perimeter not off the coasts of California, Hawaii, or even Guam, but off the east coast of Asia, where the sprawling Japanese archipelago anchors the northern edge of that line. Japan hosts about 50,000 American military personnel in a string of facilities, many of them guarding strategic chokepoints in the Ryukyu chain.

Second, American policy since the 19th century has attempted to prevent any one power from dominating East Asia. At the moment, Japan, and its big friend India, are the counterweights to the increasingly aggressive China.

China has been trying to grab territory in an arc from India in the south to South Korea in the north. At the same time, it has been attempting to appropriate for itself the international waters of, and the airspace over, the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas. Chinese planes and vessels have dangerously intercepted U.S. ones operating on or over those bodies of water. Moreover, if Beijing is ultimately successful in keeping America out of its peripheral seas, it will attempt to close off the Western Pacific, as its recent activity there suggests.

These Chinese ambitions create a challenge Washington cannot ignore, for if there has been any consistent foreign policy of the United States over the course of two centuries, it has been the defense of freedom of navigation.

At the moment, Japan is the most loyal of America’s allies in the region, something especially important at a time when Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Moon Jae-in of South Korea, the leaders of other alliance partners, have worked hard to undermine American policy.

In contrast, Donald and Shinzo—the American and Japanese leaders now refer to each other by their first names in public, as they did Wednesday—get along well. Abe has assiduously courted his American counterpart, and Trump has responded.

Abe, however, may not last long. Mired in a scandal back home over government support for a private school, he may not win a third term in September as leader of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, which would force him to step down as prime minister. There is even talk of him resigning [3] in June.

Yet American ties will endure. Trump and Abe are not the first pair of American and Japanese leaders who have bonded. George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi seemed to genuinely like each other, as did, most famously, Ron and Yasu, Reagan and Nakasone.

“Shinzo and I have developed a very close relationship,” Trump said Tuesday at the beginning of the Mar-a-Lago meetings. “We speak all the time. And our nations, I think, have never been closer than they are right now.”

That remark, despite the use of a superlative, does not appear to be Trumpian exaggeration. The U.S. and Japan, held together by shared values and interests, now face a common threat. Trump’s putting the abduction issue front and center, the first time an American president has done that, will win hearts and minds in Japan and is a sign of just how close Washington and Tokyo have become.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Donald Trump Building the Closest American-Japanese Relationship Ever?"

#1 Comment By Christian Chuba On April 20, 2018 @ 6:50 am

Add that to the list …
1. Total denuclearization.
2. Return of all abductees.
3. Continuation of U.S. troops in South Korea.

So what is N. Korea going to get in return for all of this, a stern lecture that they are on probation?
I hope that the Neocons surrounding Trump will allow him to offer Kim Un something in return, not because he is a good guy but human nature requires pragmatism, not absolute demands.

#2 Comment By Slugger On April 20, 2018 @ 10:11 am

I am not commenting about Messrs. Trump and Abe, but about the way meetings of political leaders are reported. There is often a great deal of focus on their personal relationships. Their personal affinities should not matter. Leader A should be expected to advocate for his nation, and Leader B should be a partisan for his own nation. Cordiality is useful in such a process, but any “friendship” is incidental. The world is not run by competing cliques of ten year old girls where Melissa liking Susan matters. At least I hope that international cooperation is on a more formal plane.

#3 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 20, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

Don’t poison gas the children, don’t abduct the innocents, Donald Trump hates the thought of that so much, he’s ready to dip his bullets with your name on it, you better give them back…

#4 Comment By Cynthia McLean On April 20, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

US and Japan “shared values and interests” = Militarism and Imperialism. Some history is in order, the Koreans, both South and North, and the Chinese have long memories and Japan’s vicious assault on all of East Asia in WWII is not forgotten. Japan is little more than a pawn for US military positioning in the region, stationing 10s of 1000s troops on Japan and Okinowa. The US and Trump are primarily interested in further militarizing Japan and forcing it to buy US missile systems.

#5 Comment By One Guy On April 20, 2018 @ 1:04 pm

Apparently Mr. Chang doesn’t know about Trump’s habit of saying something and then contradicting it moments later. I with Mr. Chang good luck, maybe with the next president.

#6 Comment By Youknowho On April 20, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

@One Guy

You are right. Mr. Chang seems blissfully unaware of how well Mr. Trump keeps his promises. He keeps them in a trunk, out of sight and out of mind.

I think that Mr. Abe has been briefed on Mr. Trump’s reliability by now (and truthfulness if he asks Justin Trudeau) and knows what to expect.

#7 Comment By Robert E. On April 20, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

Does a country build relationships at the top, at the level of state leaders, or does it build it at the bottom, at the level of people and culture? And how do the actual Japanese people feel about Trump?

There is always an assumption, when journalists write about foreign policy, that a country has “good” relations if their state leaders like each other and “bad” relations if they don’t. This gets us into all sorts of trouble when we think of countries like say, Iran, where the people might be very receptive to Americans, but our leaders do not get along. The reverse can be true as well though, especially if a state leader is growing unpopular in their country.

Japan is actually very similar to America in the sense that rural areas are not where the culture or wealth is created, or even where most of the population lives, but have an outsized role in electing government officials. Japan is also similar to America in that these rural areas are terminal, and will likely lose their disproportionate electoral strength within a generation. In that sense, it may be counter-productive to Japanese-American relations for Abe and Trump to get along, if their successors feel they have to repudiate their legacy.

#8 Comment By jk On April 20, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

Inspiring, only if Trump actually cared for US citizens and “beautiful babies” as much. So much for lead infused Flint infants.

#9 Comment By LouisM On April 20, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

Japan has to solve its rapid depopulation problem or it wont have the population to be a reliable partner and ally.

A unified Korea has historically been a rival to Japan but its going to take a unified Korea, Japan and the US to deal with the future problems of east asia….and China growing into an east Asian superpower.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 20, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

If I were japan, I might be inclined to snuggle up a c;lose as possible – given the rise of China and the complete agreement by nearly every Asian state that Japan has yet to repair the damage of her brutal invasions.

#11 Comment By Mia On April 21, 2018 @ 6:59 am

How old are the abductees now? Like the “families torn apart by the division of Korea,” in another decade, most of them will be dead anyway, and it will be a moot point. There also weren’t that many who were abducted.

Another thing that should be factored in how the Japanese public views Abe.


So we have two unpopular presidents who are best buds. Big whoop.

#12 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On April 21, 2018 @ 11:24 am

This has little to do with Trump and everything to do with China. For example, Abe has also been courting Modi in India.

#13 Comment By balconesfault On April 21, 2018 @ 8:56 pm

2Christian Chuba:
Add that to the list …
1. Total denuclearization.

If you think Kim is about to agree to total denuclearization in the upcoming negotiations with Trump, you’re sadly deluded. The neocons don’t have the chits to put on the table to make this happen.

Meanwhile, from the Japan Times a few months ago…

“Support for the United States in Japan has dropped to the lowest level in nine years and only a quarter of Japanese say they have confidence in U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, according to a survey released Oct. 17.

“The poll, carried out by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, showed that 57 percent of Japanese see the U.S. in a favorable light, down from 72 percent in the previous poll, conducted last year, and the biggest year-on-year decline in a decade. This is the lowest figure since 2008, when 50 percent said they had a favorable view of the U.S.

“The survey found that 24 percent expressed confidence in Trump doing the right thing regarding world affairs, down from 78 percent in 2016 who had confidence in his predecessor, Barack Obama.”

#14 Comment By Baldy On April 22, 2018 @ 1:07 pm

What I take from this is trump is willing to further complicate the achievement of a goal relevant to our national interests (denuclearization) for an issue that has zero relevance for American security. He probably doesn’t mean it but who knows?