TOKYO — President Donald Trump needled Japan over the U.S.-Japan trade imbalance as he kicked off a state visit to the country Saturday that's been tailor-made to his whims and ego.
Speaking at a reception with several dozen Japanese and American business leaders at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Tokyo shortly after his arrival, Trump said the U.S. and Japan "are hard at work" negotiating a new bilateral trade agreement that he said would benefit both countries.
"I would say that Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years, but that's OK," Trump told the group, joking that, "Maybe that's why you like me so much."
The comments underscored the competing dynamics of a state visit designed to show off the deep ties between the U.S. and Japan and the close friendship between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even as tensions are high.
Abe has rolled out the carpet for Trump as part of a continued charm offensive, giving him the honor of being the first head of state invited to meet Emperor Naruhito since he ascended to the throne on May 1. Trump will also play golf with Abe and have the chance to present a "Trump Cup" at a sumo wrestling championship Sunday.
While the visit is expected to be largely ceremonial, the stakes are also high. Trump is threatening Japan with potentially devastating U.S. tariffs on foreign autos and auto parts, and has suggested he will go ahead with the tariffs if U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer doesn't manage to wrest concessions from Japan and the European Union.
Trump had predicted that a U.S.-Japan trade deal could be finalized during his trip. But that's highly unlikely given the two sides are still figuring out the parameters of what they will negotiate.
Trump nonetheless painted the negotiations positively as he addressed the business group shortly after touching down in Japan following a 14-hour flight.
"With this deal we hope to address the trade imbalance, remove barriers to United States exports and ensure fairness and reciprocity in our relationship. And we're getting closer," he said, while urging the business leaders to invest more in the U.S.
He also praised what he described as the "very special" U.S.-Japan alliance, telling the group that, "The relationship with Japan and the United States, I can say for a fact, has never been stronger, it's never been more powerful, never been closer."
It was the kind of talk expected during a trip meant to highlight the alliance between the countries and the friendship between their leaders.
"In the world of Donald Trump, terrible things can happen if you're an ally, but no major blows have landed on Japan," said Michael Green, senior vice-president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Trump has the honor of being the first head of state invited to meet Emperor Naruhito since he assumed power after his father stepped down, the first abdication in about two centuries. Naruhito will welcome Trump to the Imperial Palace on Monday for a meeting and banquet in his honor.
"With all the countries of the world, I'm the guest of honor at the biggest event that they've had in over 200 years," Trump said Thursday.
He'll also be golfing with Abe on Sunday and hanging out that much-ballyhooed sumo trophy, which the White House said will stand nearly 5 feet and weigh between 60 and 70 pounds (27 and 32 kilograms).
Trump arrived shortly after a relatively strong earthquake rattled Tokyo. Japan's Meteorological Agency said the quake, registering magnitude 5.1, struck in Chiba, just south of Tokyo, at 3:20 p.m., about 24 miles underground. Trump was to arrive two hours later. The agency said there was no danger of a tsunami from the inland quake.
Abe made a strategic decision before Trump was elected to focus on Japan's relationship with the U.S. The courtship began when Abe rushed to New York two weeks after the November 2016 election to meet the president-elect at Trump Tower. Last month, Abe and his wife, Akie, celebrated first lady Melania Trump's birthday over a couples' dinner at the White House.
Trump plans to return to Japan for a summit of leading rich and developing nations in Osaka in late June.
Behind the smiles and personal friendship, however, lurks deep uneasiness over Trump's threat to impose tariffs on Japanese autos and auto parts on national security grounds, a move that would be far more devastating to the Japanese economy than earlier tariffs on steel and aluminum.
Trump recently agreed to a six-month delay, enough time to carry Abe past July's Japanese parliamentary elections.
"On the surface, it's all going to be a display of warmth, friendship, hospitality," said Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies. But, she said, "there's an undercurrent of awkwardness and concern about what the future might hold. ... We're coming to a decisive moment. This is, I think, the moment of truth."
Also at issue is the lingering threat of North Korea, which has resumed missile testing and recently fired a series of short-range missiles that U.S. officials, including Trump, have tried to downplay despite an agreement by Pyongyang to hold off on further testing.
Speaking to reporters Saturday ahead of Trump's arrival, national security adviser John Bolton called the series of short-range missile tests a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and said sanctions must be kept in place.
"In terms of violating U.N. Security Council resolutions, there is no doubt about that," Bolton said, adding that Trump and Abe would "talk about making sure the integrity of the Security Council resolutions are maintained."
It was a change in tone from comments made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said in a recent television interview that, "The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States." That raised alarm bells in Japan, where short-range missiles pose a serious threat.
Bolton's comments came a day after North Korean official media said nuclear negotiations with Washington won't resume unless the U.S. abandons what Pyongyang describes as unilateral disarmament demands.