In 1990, an interviewer for Playboy asked Donald Trump how he felt about “Japan’s economic pre-eminence.” He responded with a tirade:
Japan gets almost seventy percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, relies on ships led back home by our destroyers, battleships, helicopters, frog men. Then the Japanese sail home, where they give the oil to fuel their factories so that they can knock the hell out of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. Their openly screwing us is a disgrace. Why aren’t they paying us? The Japanese cajole us, they bow to us, they tell us how great we are and then they pick our pockets. We’re losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year while they laugh at our stupidity.
Since the 1980s, Trump has regularly excoriated Japan. It steals American jobs, he insists; it rapaciously exports to the US; it unfairly restricts US imports; it manipulates its currency for trade advantage; it enjoys a free ride on defense. These criticisms appeared in a full-page advertisement Trump paid for in three newspapers in 1987 and he repeated them often over the ensuing years, including in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1988.
He brought them up again during his 2016 presidential campaign, along with grievances against Germany, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—the other countries he had accused in the same Playboy interview of having “ripped off” the US. As the election narrowed to a contest between him and Hillary Clinton, dozens of books and magazine articles appeared in Japan warning of the dire consequences of a Trump presidency. Since the US presidential election of 1984, the Japanese establishment—the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the government bureaucracy, and the business community—had favored the Republican candidate. This time they supported Clinton, on the logic that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
When Trump won, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly flew to New York to meet with the president-elect on November 17, fewer than ten days after the election. He was the first foreign leader to do so. Having been extensively briefed before the meeting by psychiatrists and Trump associates, Abe arrived at Trump Tower well prepared. He was familiar with Trump’s love of golf and gold, and presented him with a $4,000 gold-plated golf club; showed Trump, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner—who, with Michael Flynn, were the only Americans in the meeting—an Instagram video of Arabella, Trump’s five-year-granddaughter, singing and dancing to a song (“Pen Pineapple Apple Pen”) made popular by the Japanese entertainer Pikotaro; and told Trump, “You and I have many things in common. The New York Times is your enemy, and the Asahi Shimbun is my enemy. I have tamed the Asahi; I hope you will tame the Times.”
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