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Trump Meets Japanese Emperor as He Begins Business Portion of State Visit

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are escorted by Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako during an welcome ceremony at the Imperial Palace on May 27, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Issei Kato – Pool/Getty Images)

After a day of casual diplomatic male bonding, President Donald Trump entered the more stately portion of his visit to Japan on Monday, honoring the country’s newly enthroned Emperor and sitting for trade- and security-focused talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In a sunny outdoor ceremony at the Imperial Palace, Trump shook hands with Emperor Naruhito and his wife, engaging warmly as he became the first foreign leader to meet the new monarch. Later he reviewed a cordon of Japanese troops and greeted yellow-hatted schoolchildren waving flags.

Those were more buttoned-up occasions than the round of golf, sumo wrestling tournament and hibachi dinner the President enjoyed Sunday. In manners-conscious Japan, Trump’s interactions with the monarch and his wife were closely scrutinized. And his talks with Abe will come after a Sunday tweet from Trump threw into question the leaders’ alignment on North Korea.

Trump has also sounded bullish in his bid to negotiate a new trade deal with Japan that reduces a $68 billion trade deficit. He’s ignored Abe’s pleas to remove tariffs on steel and aluminum, though he did delay new auto tariffs for six months while a deal is worked out. He said this week that real work on a new trade agreement would not begin until after Japanese parliamentary elections in July.

The business portion of the visit will also include a news conference and an imperial banquet, all meant to underscore strong US-Japan ties that Abe hopes to reinforce through his close personal friendship with Trump.

Whether his courtship efforts are paying off remains an open question, and Trump’s tweet downplaying the severity of North Korean short range missile tests on Sunday undercut Abe’s views on the matter.

There was no mention of the episode during Trump and Abe’s multiple joint outings Sunday, which included 16 holes at a golf course south of Tokyo, ringside seats at a sumo wrestling tournament and a dinner double date with their wives over grilled Wagyu beef and vanilla ice cream.

The casual bonhomie between the men was captured in a selfie Abe posted from the golf course, Trump grinning underneath a red “USA” cap.

His interactions with the new royal couple will likely be more rigid. Trump is the first foreign leader to meet Emperor Naruhito since he assumed the Chrysanthemum Throne earlier this month. Oxford-educated with an academic interest in waterways, the 59-year-old Naruhito is ushering in the Reiwa era in Japan, a historic moment for the world’s oldest monarchy.

The US-drafted Japanese constitution stripped the Japanese emperor of any political power after World War II. But the monarch holds a powerful symbolic role in a country deeply rooted in tradition.

President Barack Obama drew criticism when he performed a deep bow to Emperor Akihito, a show of deference his political opponents decried as unseemly for a US leader. When Trump met Akihito in 2017, he offered a nod and a handshake instead — and he repeated that Monday as he greeted Akihito’s son.

It’s customary for Japanese guests not to touch the royal couple, but the practice is common for visiting foreign leaders.

Unlike other royal families, the Japanese emperor can only be a man. When female members of the royal family get married, they are forced to give up their titles and become commoners. Naruhito’s wife, Empress Masako, went to college at Harvard and began a career as a diplomat before marrying into the royal family.

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