US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump disembark from Air Force One upon arrival at Haneda international airport in Tokyo on May 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jiji Press

United States President Donald Trump and his wife Melania landed in Japan on Saturday afternoon for a four-day trip more likely to be dominated by warm words and photo opportunities than any substantive progress involving trade.

Air Force One touched down in Japan just before 5 pm local time on a sunny Tokyo Saturday afternoon. Just over an hour before Trump’s plane landed, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake rattled buildings in Tokyo, with the epicenter very close to where the two leaders are due to tee off for a game of golf.

The US president went straight to a meeting with Japanese business executives and wasted no time in pushing for a trade deal between the world’s top and number-three economies slanted more in Washington’s favor.

Donald Trump during a meeting with business leaders in Tokyo on May 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski

“Japan has had a substantial advantage for many, many years. But that’s okay, maybe that’s why you like us so much,” Trump told the executives.

Once a trade deal still under negotiation has been signed, Trump said it will be “a little bit more fair.”

In the lead-up to Trump’s visit, officials and journalists in Tokyo have been concerned that trade talks could put a damper on what has so far been a robust Japan-US relationship.

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are not scheduled to make any joint statements amid speculation the two “friends” may paper over their differences on trade.

Because of Trump’s aggressive stance on trade, there are fears in Tokyo that relations between the two countries may cool despite Abe’s attempts to forge close ties with the US president.

Donald Trump (L) and Shinzo Abe playing golf at the Kasumigaseki Country Club on November 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Japan’s Cabinet Public Relations Office/Jiji Press

‘Golf buddy’

For many business leaders and politicians in Tokyo, Japan is too valuable a partner for the US to fall out with, especially in a highly volatile world with unpredictable strongmen of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea all aggressively asserting themselves on the global stage.

Japanese and US officials have hailed as “unprecedented” the relationship between Trump and his “golf buddy” Abe, and the pair will play a round while Trump is visiting.

The highlight of the visit will be Trump’s meeting on Monday with Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito, who only ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne early this month after his father abdicated for health reasons.

“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,” said Trump before his departure, according to AFP.

Possibly the best photo opportunity during the trip is likely to be Trump’s visit on Sunday to the final day of the summer “basho,” or sumo tournament, where he will present a trophy to the winner.

Donald Trump may have to duck some pillows when he watches the sumo wrestling in Japan. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Pillow throwing

Trump’s presence in the hallowed sumo hall has presented a logistical, security and protocol nightmare, ranging from where he sits to how he should be protected if the crowd start throwing pillows, a tradition when a Grand Champion falls.

Trump and Abe will play a round of golf before heading to the sumo tournament and then join their wives at a restaurant in Tokyo’s Roppongi entertainment district, where the menu features skewers of prime Japanese beef.

A Japanese diplomat told AFP that the frequent contact between Trump and Abe “demonstrates the unprecedented level of close personal relations between the Japanese and US leaders.”

The most formal part of Trump’s visit will be a short meeting and a working lunch on Monday, after which the two leaders will speak to the media.

Trump and Abe are also due to meet the families of people abducted by North Korea, an issue in Japan that Abe has pressed Trump to raise in his talks with Kim Jong Un.

US base visit

The US president will also address troops at a US base, highlighting the military alliance between the two allies when tensions are high with North Korea after the failure of the Hanoi summit in February.

While Trump was airborne in Air Force One, hawkish National Security Advisory John Bolton said there was “no doubt” Pyongyang’s recent missile tests violated UN Security Council resolutions. However, he also said Washington was ready to resume talks with the North.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is expected to hold talks with his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of the visit, but little is expected to be resolved.

“Japan’s strategy is to proceed with negotiations in a cool-headed manner,” in contrast to the aggressive tit-for-tat tariff retaliations between the US and China, Shujiro Urata, a trade expert and professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, told AFP.

However, the trip is more likely to be about smiles, handshakes and photo opportunities, insiders say, something Trump will surely welcome as a respite from the turmoil in Washington.

– With reporting by AFP

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