US President Donald Trump presents a special presidential cup to Asanoyama, the winner of the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan arena in Tokyo on Sunday. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

US President Donald Trump stole the spotlight Sunday night when he attended the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament.

He was the first American leader to attend a tournament in sumo’s iconic Ryogoku Kokugikan arena, and thousands cheered and whistled when the former reality TV star made his entrance.

The president, who is on a feel-good visit to Japan that includes meeting with the newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito on Monday, responded – predictably – by waving and pumping his fist.

Trump famously loves being the center of attention and he definitely proved his star power in Japan.

Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie were shown to four low seats, which was a break from sumo tradition – spectators normally sit on simple mats.

Trump, formally attired in a suit with a pink tie, and Melania, wearing a pink dress, initially drew more attention than the sumo ring. Thousands of mobile phones flashed and filmed.

“This is a very rare opportunity. He’s got an aura,” said spectator Masamitsu Kurokawa, 56, who works in the service industry. “He is in a different class.”

But once the action in the ring recommenced, everyone’s attention turned to the giant sumo wrestlers pushing and buffeting each other as the crowd cheered wildly.

Trump appeared somewhat baffled by the proceedings, which were a far cry from the American version of wrestling. His attendance at the annual summer sumo tournament may have reminded some of the time he spent promoting the World Wrestling Federation. Trump sponsored major events, appeared in bits and was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2013.

As he watched the action, his initially cheerful demeanour faded and he sat stolidly, staring straight ahead, occasionally exchanging a few words with Abe.

Japanese wrestler Asanoyama lost his final bout, but was still far ahead enough of his competition overall to retain the title of champion. The crowd sang the Japanese national anthem.

Asanoyama then triumphantly entered the ring to receive his first trophy and the crowd cheered.

Abe then presented an even bigger second trophy, the Prime Minister’s Cup, which was so large that a child would fit inside it. The crowd cheered even more loudly.

And then came the American trophy, which is officially known as the President’s Cup but is already popularly known as the “Trump Cup.”

Unlike the previous two, the US trophy was carried into the ring under a white sheet, which an official in traditional Japanese garb then pulled off, revealing a massive, glistening cup, prompting a chorus of whistling and “oohs.”

Entering the ring, Trump read a brief presentation to Asanoyama. He elicited an enthusiatic cheer when he mentioned that the award was being given in the new imperial era of Reiwa.

Now relaxed and beaming, the property mogul faked a grimace as he hoisted the huge cup with the help of one of the sumo officials at his side.

Amid more applause, Trump shook hands with Abe and turned to exit the ring, reluctantly leaving the triumphant Asanoyama to enjoy his moment in the spotlight alone.

“That was something to see these great athletes,” Trump said after the uniquely Japanese sporting event.

Four-day visit

Trump’s four-day state visit to Japan is designed to demonstrate the strength of the ties between the nations.

Earlier in the day, the president received a warm welcome as he arrived at Mobara Country Club, south of Tokyo, for a steamy morning round of golf with the Japanese leader. It was their fifth golf outing together.

Abe is pulling out all the stops as he seeks to placate Trump amid growing US-Japan trade tensions and the threat of auto tariffs. Japan is also contending with the continued threat of North Korea and Trump’s apparent dismissal of Pyongyang’s recent tests of short-range missiles that could reach Japan.

But Sunday was all about bromance and keeping Trump in good spirits. In addition to enjoying a round of golf and a sumo chamionship, he was served his favorite meal for lunch: double cheeseburgers made with American beef. This was later followed by dinner with Abe and his wife.

It was a fun day out, but Trump’s congenial mood did not last for long.

After tweeting that he’d had “Great fun and meeting with Prime Minister @AbeShinzo,” he shifted his focus to domestic politics, claiming that, “Numerous Japanese officials told me that the Democrats would rather see the United States fail than see me or the Republican Party succeed – Death Wish!”

There is a long tradition of American presidents and candidates refraining from criticizing their rivals while on foreign soil – but Trump is a notable exception.

Earlier in the day, Trump went after one of his potential Democratic rivals, former vice president Joe Biden, saying he’d smiled when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse.”

He also downplayed North Korea’s recent series of short-range missile tests. He tweeted that the tests weren’t a concern for him – even though they most certainly are for Japan, due to the country’s proximity to the North.

“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump wrote in a message that appeared to undermine his national security adviser, John Bolton, who told reporters Saturday the tests violated UN Security Council resolutions.

The president also sought to manage expectations that he and Abe will make significant headway on trade issues when they hold more formal talks on Monday. Trump has been seeking a bilateral trade agreement with Tokyo since he pulled the US out of the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement two years ago, though analysts expect no breakthroughs during Trump’s visit.

“Great progress being made in our Trade Negotiations with Japan. Agriculture and beef heavily in play. Much will wait until after their July elections where I anticipate big numbers!” he wrote, referring to Japan’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

The Trump administration has been threatening Japan with new tariffs on imports of autos and auto parts on national security grounds. Trump has suggested he will impose tariffs if the US can’t wrest concessions from Japan and the European Union. In April, Japan’s trade surplus surged almost 18% to 723 billion yen ($6.6 billion).

– with reporting by AFP, Politico and Associated Press

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