Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Masks of Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe worn at a Halloween parade in Tokyo, October 2017

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.”

Trump felt an immediate rapport with Abe. On February 10, when Abe visited Washington for his first official meeting with the new president, Trump spent part of their joint press conference gushing about their relationship:

We developed a great friendship when we met in New York City, at Trump Tower. We spoke for a long, long period of time. And when I greeted him today at the car, I was saying—I shook hands, but I grabbed him and hugged him because that’s the way we feel. We have a very, very good bond—very, very good chemistry.

At the state dinner that Abe hosted for Trump in Tokyo on November 6, 2017, Trump effused to the press that “we have to spend more time together because I have enjoyed every minute of it,” before adding that most Trumpian of compliments, “even though he’s a very, very tough negotiator.” Abe exuded confidence that the red carpet treatment he had given the narcissistic president had worked: “When you play golf with someone not just once, but for two times,” Abe said, “the person must be your favorite guy.”

Skillful handling of the US president has been a requirement for successful Japanese prime ministers in the postwar period. Yasuhiro Nakasone’s “Ron/Yasu” relationship with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s was the model until Junichiro Koizumi’s chumminess with George W. Bush took the art to still further heights in the 2000s. Yukio Hatoyama, the Democratic Party prime minister elected in 2009, was forced out of office in fewer than nine months largely because he was widely thought to have jeopardized the US–Japan security alliance by dealing clumsily with Barack Obama and questioning the value of the US military presence on Okinawa.

Abe had a powerful incentive to get on Trump’s good side early. His relationship with Obama had been professional but cool, businesslike, and at times prickly. And because he had met with candidate Clinton at her request in New York on September 19, he felt the need to make up for lost time by seeking Trump out before he assumed office. Between 2006 and 2007, Abe had an unsuccessful one-year term as prime minister following the popular Koizumi, who had held the position for more than five years. Abe spent five years in the wilderness plotting his comeback before returning to office in 2012. Despite several financial scandals and gaffes by some of his closest associates, he and his party have managed to win every national election since then, aided both by the disarray in the opposition parties and by the hostile international environment. The Japanese electorate may not be enthusiastic about Abe or the LDP, but they see no alternative and feel betrayed by the opposition party, which failed to govern effectively during its three years in office from 2009 to 2012.


In the view of Andrew Oros, a professor of political science at Washington College, Abe has done much so far to contribute to a “security renaissance” in Japan. He has, for instance, increased the defense budget, created a National Security Council, relaxed the ban on exporting military technology, passed a State Secrets Protection Law, and enacted legislation to expand Japan’s overseas military activities. Oros appears to welcome these developments. But even he has some concern about Abe’s “outspokenly nationalist views on controversial history issues” and his associations with “historical revisionists” such as the Japan Conference, a nationalist organization whose mission includes revising the constitution, promoting patriotic education, rejecting the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, and supporting official visits by Japanese political leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the war dead, including the spirits of World War II leaders who were found guilty at the trial.

Abe’s nationalistic agenda echoes the aspirations of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, the wartime munitions minister who was suspected of war crimes and imprisoned by the postwar US occupation forces. Kishi was later released and enlisted by the same US authorities to fight against the Japanese Socialist and Communist parties; he served as prime minister in the late 1950s. Abe’s self-professed dream has been sengo rejiimu kara no dakkyaku (to “escape the shackles of the postwar regime”)—that is, to dismantle the US occupation policy of democratizing and demilitarizing Japan. To this end, he has long sought to revise the constitution, especially the pacifist Article 9, which was written after the war under the direction of the American occupiers led by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan.

Abe has been masterful at targeting his messages to different audiences. As Oros notes, he uses different terminology domestically and abroad to describe his national security strategy. Internationally, he relies on the English phrase “proactive contributions to peace,” with the emphasis on “contributions.” But the original term in Japanese is sekkyokuteki heiwashugi (“proactive pacifism”), with the emphasis on “pacifism,” which has a more reassuring ring to the Japanese public, many of whom are suspicious that Abe’s hidden agenda is to embark on a full-scale militarization of Japan.

Abe has likewise tried to convince the international community that he actively promotes women in the workplace. At the World Assembly of Women conference in Tokyo on November 3, just two days before the president’s arrival, Abe pledged to Ivanka, whom he invited to Tokyo as a keynote speaker, that the Japanese government would contribute $50 million to the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, which she supports. But a few days earlier, the World Economic Forum had announced that Japan had fallen three positions, from 111th to 114th out of 144 countries, in the Global Gender Gap report, the worst performance among the G7 countries.

The LDP’s landslide victory in the October 22, 2017, election means that—barring health problems or a major scandal—Abe is likely to remain Japan’s prime minister until 2021. Including the one year he served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, this would mean that he will have spent more time in office than any prime minister in Japanese history since Hirobumi Ito first assumed the position in 1885. He is in a more powerful position now than at any previous time. The question is how he will use his remaining four years, and what he hopes to get out of his new camaraderie with Trump.

In some respects Abe would have preferred Clinton as president. She would have kept the US more assertively engaged in Asia, counterbalancing China and protecting Japan from North Korea. And she would likely have continued the “pivot” to Asia that began when she was secretary of state and Kurt Campbell was her assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Campbell’s book The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia reads like a workplan that could have been used in a Clinton administration. It gives a ten-point program for giving Asia “a greater degree of strategic regard,” which would involve mobilizing the American public to support the country’s increased attention to Asia, strengthening ties to Asian allies, and shaping “the contours of China’s rise.”


Trump, by contrast, has withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic centerpiece of the pivot, creating a vacuum that China has been only too happy to fill. (The remaining eleven TPP countries are in the process of implementing the agreement anyway, suggesting that the Pacific Rim countries are perfectly willing to collaborate among themselves without help from the US.) On several occasions—including his “America First” speech on November 10 at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam and his speech on December 18 unveiling the new National Security Strategy—Trump has made it clear that he does not intend to pursue a multilateral approach to the region, cooperate with Europe in Asia, or promote freedom, democracy, and human rights in Asia.

Trump often insists that the US can no longer afford to protect its allies and that they should fend for themselves. During his campaign, he went so far as to suggest that if North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, “we may be better off” if South Korea and Japan have them too. Although he has touted “a free and open Indo-Pacific region” since his November trip to Asia, there has been little substance behind the catchphrase. Asian leaders have concluded that Trump has withdrawn the US from the region and left it to China to fill the resulting power gap.

At the same time, a Trump presidency will give Abe freedom—more than he could have hoped for under Clinton—to move the country in a nationalist direction. Since World War II, the Japanese right, of which Abe is a leader, has found ways to use the US to advance its own domestic policy agenda, from enacting secrecy legislation that gives the government more control over information to expanding the overseas responsibilities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Trump’s rise to power has given this nationalist wing of Japanese politics the opportunity to expand its influence and proclaim its aims more openly. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a speech at the Japanese Conservative Political Action Conference in Tokyo on December 17, had nothing but praise for Abe, calling him a “Trump before Trump” and celebrating his drive to “reinstill the spirit of nationalism.” He extolled Abe for having “talked about a nation’s pride, a nation’s destiny, a nation taking control of its future.”

Ki Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a campaign rally in Tokyo, October 2017

Aside from revising Article 9, Abe wants to improve Japan’s relationship with Russia, including by resolving the long-standing dispute between the two countries over four of the Kuril Islands, which were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II but over which Japan still claims sovereignty. He also aims to ensure that school textbooks give a “balanced picture”—i.e., one that includes patriotic and nationalist viewpoints—of such issues as the Nanking massacre and the “comfort women,” many of whom were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. And he hopes to legitimize official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which have been criticized for glorifying Japanese wartime leaders who were judged guilty in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. When Abe visited the shrine in 2013, the Obama administration issued an unprecedented public statement of “disappointment.” There is no indication that the Trump administration would do the same if Abe were to visit the shrine now.

Abe is on less secure ground when it comes to Trump’s dealings with China. Since the nineteenth century, the US has debated how best to deal simultaneously with China and Japan. From the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to the early 1930s, it considered Japan a model student of the West. But during the 1930s through 1945, China, in part through the efforts of Chiang Kai-shek and his allies, emerged as the country the US should support against a colonialist Japan. Starting in the late 1940s, George Kennan and others promoted a view of Japan as the anti-Communist bulwark of Western capitalism. Now China’s new economic and political influence is again changing the balance of power in Asia.

Japan itself has had a tense relationship with China. In her book Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China, Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, surveys some of the recent conflicts between the two countries. In addition to Chinese disapproval of official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese political leaders, there are maritime boundary disputes in the East China Sea, Japanese concerns over the safety of food imports from China, and territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Smith predicts “a very difficult future” for Sino-Japanese relations, in part because “increasing nationalist activism in Japan” is bound to produce “reactive popular responses from China.”

From Japan’s perspective, relations between China and the US should ideally be neither too close nor too distant. Overly cooperative ties could result in the US and China establishing a “new model of great power relations,” perhaps in the form of a “G-2,” by which China and the US would make all of the important decisions affecting the Asia-Pacific region, excluding or at least marginalizing Japan. Some Japanese feared that Susan Rice, the national security adviser in the second Obama administration, was dangerously close to giving China such precedence over Japan.

The Japanese still remember a case of this nightmare scenario from 1971, when President Richard Nixon sent his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to Beijing for secret talks to reestablish relations with China without notifying Japan. Any deals that Trump may cut with Xi Jinping or Kim Jong-un could have disastrous consequences, not only for the US but also for its allies in Asia. On the other hand, open conflict between China and the US could force Japan to make difficult choices between an ally on which it relies for security and a rising power on which it increasingly relies for economic benefits—whether in the form of investment, tourism, or trade. For although Japanese nationalists reject many of the reforms the US undertook in postwar Japan, they also need the US to deter a hostile environment in Northeast Asia.

On the whole, however, the initial shock and fear generated in Japan by Trump’s victory has transformed into what some in the country have called “Trump optimism.” A Pew Research survey has found that among America’s allies, Japan showed a drop of only 15 points in its favorable views of the US after Trump’s inauguration, compared to 17 points in France and 22 points in Germany. The assessment of whether the US president would “do the right thing regarding world affairs” dropped 75 points in Germany and 70 points in France, but only 54 points in Japan. A partial explanation may be that for many establishment Japanese—mostly old and male—Trump’s notion of an America made “great again” agrees with their image of America from the occupation period through the mid-1960s, when old white males, much like those in Trump’s cabinet, were running the country.

Under Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Obama-era concept of the “Asia-Pacific” has been replaced by that of the “Indo-Pacific.” What this term means is so far unclear, but Abe welcomes its use. For years he and his deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, have advocated engaging India in a “diamond” or “arc” of security and trade that would also include Japan, the US, and Australia—with the unstated but obvious intent to contain China.

Abe may see India as a foil against China, but his affinity for the country also has deep historical and ideological roots. During a visit to India in August 2007, near the end of his first term as prime minister, Abe visited Kolkata to meet relatives of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist who during World War II tried to rid India of British rule with the help of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. He also met with the son of Radhabinod Pal, the sole judge who dissented at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, arguing that the Japanese defendants should all be acquitted because the legitimacy of the tribunal was questionable and the verdicts represented victor’s justice. “Many Japanese have been moved deeply by such persons of strong will and action of the independence of India like Subhas Chandra Bose,” Abe said. “Even to this day, many Japanese revere Radhabinod Pal.”

For Abe, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and Trump’s combative attitude toward Kim Jong-un have been godsends. According to Deputy Prime Minister Aso, the threat from North Korea was a major factor in the LDP’s landslide victory in the October 22 elections. And it has helped to mute the tensions between Japan and South Korea over the issue of comfort women, since Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in need to cooperate against North Korea. The nearly twenty telephone calls between Abe and Trump since he assumed the presidency—more than Trump has had with any other foreign leader—have all concentrated on how best to respond to the North Korean threat.

Finally, once the US concludes its renegotiations with Canada and Mexico over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and with Korea over the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), its priority on trade is likely to be China. The list of US grievances on this front is long: trade deficits, tariffs, nontariff barriers, currency manipulation, forced technology transfers, theft of intellectual property rights, dumping, cyberattacks, subsidies to state-owned enterprises. This means that, despite repeated threats to do so, the US is unlikely to press Japan to start negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement in the near future. Abe has been anxious to stave off Trump’s promises to get tough with Japan on trade, and as long as Trump is preoccupied with China, Abe will have the breathing space he needs to pursue his nationalist agenda.

What can we expect from another four years of Abe? He still promises to revive the economy through “Abenomics,” which in its original form comprised monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform to spur sustained economic growth. But even Abe’s staunchest supporters concede that Abenomics has failed to attain the target he promised in 2013: to raise the inflation rate to 2 percent within two years. His supporters argue that the economy is “well on the way” to reaching the desired outcome. Critics, on the other hand, point out that despite the weak yen, high stock prices, and record corporate earnings, Abenomics has not produced economic gains for most households, and the demographic challenges facing Japan—shrinking population, low birth rate, and aging workforce—are formidable.

In the New Year’s speeches he gave in Tokyo in early January, several of which I attended, Abe emphasized that this year is the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which saw the birth of Japan’s emergence as a modern state. For Abe, this is an opportunity for Japan to “make a new beginning.” Many Japanese nationalists, including members of the Japan Conference, have told me that the US “emasculated” Japan after World War II by forcing a constitution on the country that deprives it of a legitimate military and by imposing American-style democratic institutions and values that, in their view, are incompatible with “Japanese identity.” For them, revising the constitution would be the clearest sign that the “postwar regime” had ended and that Japan had finally regained its autonomy and independence as a sovereign nation.

The LDP and several of its allied parties are eager to revise the constitution, and after the recent elections they now command the necessary two-thirds majority in the upper and lower houses. But a constitutional revision would have to be approved by a majority in a national referendum, which will not be easy. In a nationwide poll taken last May, 82 percent of respondents were “proud of the current Constitution that advocates pacifism.” However, if North Korea continues its aggressive missile and nuclear tests, if South Korea strengthens its military in response, if China intensifies its challenges to territories that Japanese claims as its own, and if the US loses its credibility as a defender of Japan against outside threats, the mood in Japan could change.

This is what former Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto had in mind when he said in a public forum in Washington on March 27, 2017, that he hopes Trump will announce the withdrawal of US forces from Japan, since doing so would force the Japanese public to think seriously about the country’s defense for the first time since the end of World War II. Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping, in other words, have provided the external threats that will help Abe keep the Japanese electorate supporting the LDP and an assertive foreign policy. And Trump, by touting “America First,” has given Abe the freedom to pursue a “Japan First” policy that may allow him, during his last four years in office, to become the first postwar prime minister to revise the constitution and to go down in the history books for realizing what he considers Japan’s “new beginning,” which might actually seem more like reverting to the past.