Multiple newspapers in Japan reported this week that the government of conservative Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is seeking to establish contact with former President Donald Trump in anticipation of his potential return to the White House.
Trump won a decisive victory in the Iowa primary caucuses the week, defeating his three opponents by the largest margin in the history of the Republican Iowa caucuses. One of the three, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump, leaving Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in the race. In the increasingly likely possibility that Trump is nominated and runs against incumbent President Joe Biden, recent polls indicate that he is attracting enough support in key states to potentially win the presidency.
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During his first term in office from 2016 to 2020, Trump made Japan a priority in his foreign policy. The first world leader to meet with him following his election victory in 2016 was the late former prime minister of the country, Abe Shinzo, who developed a close friendship with the president. Kishida, the current prime minister, served as Abe’s foreign minister.
The left-leaning Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported on Wednesday that Kishida may have sent another former prime minister, Aso Taro, to establish contact with Trump’s team during a recent visit to America. Aso is currently serving as the vice president of Kishida’s and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and is considered highly influential following his term as prime minister.
In the United States between January 9 and 13, Aso reportedly “spoke at an event sponsored by a U.S. think tank and met with U.S. government officials,” according to Asahi, “But according to sources, Aso also tried to meet with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is on the comeback trail.”
Aso was reportedly in New York at the same time as Trump but the two did not meet. Anonymous sources told Asahi that the Trump team had also “sent out feelers” to Aso to re-establish contact with the Japanese government.
Aso publicly denied having any plans to meet with Trump while in America.
Another Japanese newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, reported the day before that Kishida “believes that Donald Trump is highly likely to win the Republican Party primary” and thus potentially the presidency. The newspaper also reported that Kishida was “pinning his hopes on Taro Aso,” and that Kishida met with Aso to assess his time in America on Monday, shortly after his return to Japan. Yomiuri claimed that, according to unknown sources, the two discussed the American presidential race.
Yomiuri described Biden as an obstacle to Japan’s attempts at contact with Trump: “The relationship with the Biden administration makes it difficult for Japanese government officials to make official contact with Trump’s team.”
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, citing Asahi Shimbun‘s reporting, claimed that the Japanese government was attempting to inflate Trump’s “ego” out of fear that he could seek diplomacy with North Korea. As president, Trump met with North Korea’s communist dictator Kim Jong-un on several occasions, resulting in a significant decline in the number of illegal nuclear missile tests and other belligerent behavior out of Pyongyang.
“Trump forging any sort of alliance with North Korea is Japan’s nightmare scenario,” Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor of politics and international relations at Waseda University, told the South China Morning Post.
The newspaper omitted that the Japanese government itself has attempted the same kind of diplomacy that Trump did during his presidency. During Trump’s term, Abe, who was prime minister at the time, reportedly sought an in-person meeting with Kim that never happened. Current Prime Minister Kishida invited Kim to meet during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September.
“From the perspective of opening up a new era together, I would like to convey my determination to meet with President Kim Jong-un face to face at any time without any conditions,” Kishida offered, “and would like to hold high-level talks under my direct supervision to realize a summit meeting at an early time.”
Abe was prime minister for most of Trump’s presidential term, allowing the two to foster close relations. Abe was the first world leader to meet with Trump in 2016 and gave Trump and First Lady Melania Trump a regal welcome in Japan in 2019. Trump was an honored guest alongside Abe and First Lady Abe Akie at a sumo wrestling tournament, where the American president awarded the trophy to the winner.
Abe resigned from the prime ministership in 2020 as a result of health complications from ulcerative colitis. He remained an influential figure in Japanese politics until July 2022, when an assassin killed him in broad daylight during a public event with a homemade firearm.
“Absolutely devastating news that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, a truly great man and leader, has been shot, and is in very serious condition,” Trump said in a statement at the time. “He was a true friend of mine and, much more importantly, America. This is a tremendous blow to the wonderful people of Japan, who loved and admired him so much. We are all praying for Shinzo and his beautiful family!”