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Trade Is Likely To Come Up During Trump's Visit To Japan


President Trump arrives in Japan tomorrow. Most of the visit will be photo ops - meeting Japan's new emperor, playing golf and watching a sumo wrestling match with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo, if any substantive issues do come up, trade is likely to be one of them.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty complained to Japanese media this week that Japan is putting U.S. farmers and ranchers at a disadvantage. It's cut deals with other big agricultural producers like Australia and Canada, lowering tariffs on their exports and allowing them to grab market share in Japan. But experts say that's not exactly the whole picture.

BRAD GLOSSERMAN: What you're looking at is a U.S. government that is demanding what it could have had and is unfortunately not in a position to acknowledge that.

KUHN: Brad Glosserman is deputy director of the Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategies in Tokyo. He points out that the U.S. and Japan worked for years on a free trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which President Trump pulled out of. Japan and 10 other countries went ahead without the U.S., and now those countries are reaping the benefits.

GLOSSERMAN: As one columnist put it, how dare you let me dump you, and how dare Japan let the United States walk away from a deal that would have served its national interest, and somehow it's Japan's fault.

KUHN: The Trump administration's other big complaint is that Japan exports so many cars to the U.S. that it endangers American national security. Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on them in six months if a deal is not reached. Japan points out that it makes more cars in the U.S. than it exports there, creating tens of thousands of jobs. And Stanford University Japan expert Daniel Sneider says it's hard for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to do much more than that.

DANIEL SNEIDER: It's very difficult for Abe to make an agreement which effectively shuts down factories and loses jobs in Japan. So, you know, he's got his constituencies, too.

KUHN: Japanese investment in the U.S. has surged under the Trump administration, especially in states which voted for Trump in 2016. And, Sneider says, Japan knows Trump can point to this at election time next year. But Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are facing their own elections in Parliament this year, and Sneider says they can't afford to cut any trade deal that might alienate Japanese rural voters.

SNEIDER: If they desert the LDP, it could have a huge impact. That happened to them in 2007; Abe lost a big upper house election in 2007, and he's never forgotten that lesson.

KUHN: Abe's already in his third and probably final term as prime minister, so this election is not about his political survival; it's about his legacy. And Abe's made it clear that his ultimate political goal is to amend Japan's constitution which was drafted by the U.S. after Japan's defeat in World War II. Nihon University political scientist Tomoaki Iwai says Abe and the LDP already have a simple majority in Parliament, but Abe needs more to reach his goal.

TOMOAKI IWAI: (Through interpreter) If he can't get a two-thirds majority this time, he wouldn't be able to amend the constitution. And if he can't do that, then there'd be no point in him continuing to be a politician.

KUHN: So Abe may not just be wary of giving anything away to President Trump, Iwai says. He may not want to even bring up the topic of cars and crops. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.


Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.