TOKYO -- Japan's automakers and their pro-business government are flustered by the trade policies of President Donald Trump, but they're apparently hopeful the tension can be defused with something as simple as a conversation on the golf course.
Japan and the U.S. already have a square deal, they say. Japan's carmakers have deep roots in America. They create thousands of jobs there. Japan has no tariffs. Trade is fair and free. If only Trump understood these realities, they figure, he wouldn't threaten to blow up the North American trade bloc or slap border adjustment taxes on imports.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faced the tricky mission of delivering that message to Trump last week at a summit in Washington. Abe's overture was expected to entail an investment plan for how Japan can help boost U.S. job growth, Japanese media reported. Yet ahead of the meeting, Japanese business leaders were pinning their hopes on a meeting of the minds over trade.
Given Trump's avowed "America first" policies, Japan's expectations might seem naive. But Japan's powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry was outwardly upbeat that Abe could win Trump's understanding and stave off a trade tussle.
"Regarding automobiles, President Trump has said several things about that, but it seems there are some misunderstandings," Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko said Feb. 3. "This is what we will address at the summit meeting."
Forging a personal bond is seen as key. "There are expectations that if Abe deepens a personal relationship with Trump, it will lower the risks of Japan being targeted over economic issues," Japan's Yomiuri daily said, quoting an unidentified government official.
At a cordial White House news conference Friday, Abe flattered Trump's golfing abilities, and Trump referred to the "great friendship" the two leaders developed during a meeting at Trump Tower in New York. They were preparing to leave Washington together aboard Air Force One for a round of golf at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
"In a relaxed atmosphere," Abe told reporters, "I hope to take time to discuss with Donald on the future of the world, the future of Japan and the United States."