US President Donald Trump sought to tackle the US-Japan trade imbalance as he kicked off a state visit to the country.
Speaking at a reception for Japanese and American business leaders at the US ambassador’s residence in Tokyo shortly after his arrival, Mr Trump said the US and Japan “are hard at work” negotiating a new bilateral trade agreement that he said would benefit both countries.
“I would say that Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years, but that’s OK,” Mr Trump told the group, joking: “Maybe that’s why you like me so much.”
The comments underscored the competing dynamics of a state visit designed to show off the deep ties between the US and Japan, and the close friendship between Mr Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even as tensions are high.
Mr Abe has rolled out the carpet for Mr Trump as part of a continued charm offensive, giving him the honour of being the first head of state invited to meet Emperor Naruhito since he ascended to the throne on May 1.
Mr Trump will also play golf with Mr Abe and have the chance to present a “Trump Cup” at a sumo wrestling championship on Sunday.
While the visit is expected to be largely ceremonial, the stakes are also high. Mr Trump is threatening Japan with potentially devastating US tariffs on foreign cars and car parts, and has suggested he will go ahead with the tariffs if US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer does not manage to wrest concessions from Japan and the European Union.
Mr Trump had predicted that a US-Japan trade deal could be finalised during his trip. But that appears highly unlikely given the two sides are still figuring out the parameters of what they will negotiate.
Mr Trump nonetheless painted the negotiations positively as he addressed the business group shortly after touching down in Japan following a 14-hour flight.
“With this deal we hope to address the trade imbalance, remove barriers to United States exports and ensure fairness and reciprocity in our relationship. And we’re getting closer,” he said, while urging the business leaders to invest more in the US.
He also praised what he described as the “very special” US-Japan alliance, telling the group that, “The relationship with Japan and the United States, I can say for a fact, has never been stronger, it’s never been more powerful, never been closer.”
Mr Trump has the honour of being the first head of state invited to meet Emperor Naruhito since he assumed power after his father stepped down, the first abdication in about two centuries. Naruhito will welcome Mr Trump to the Imperial Palace on Monday for a meeting and banquet in his honour.
“With all the countries of the world, I’m the guest of honour at the biggest event that they’ve had in over 200 years,” Mr Trump said on Thursday.
He will also be golfing with Mr Abe on Sunday and delivering the sumo trophy, which the White House said will stand nearly 5 feet tall and weigh between 60 and 70 pounds.
Mr Trump arrived shortly after a relatively strong earthquake rattled Tokyo. Japan’s Meteorological Agency said the quake, registering magnitude 5.1, struck in Chiba, just south of Tokyo, 24 miles underground. Mr Trump was to arrive two hours later. There was no danger of a tsunami from the inland quake.