President Donald Trump presented a special US-made trophy to the winner of a sumo tournament as he got a taste of one of Japan’s most treasured cultural institutions.
The honour given to Mr Trump was part of a charm offensive by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he courted Mr Trump with three things close to the American leader’s heart: Wrestling, cheeseburgers and golf.
Call it sumo diplomacy.
The president, first lady Melania Trump, Mr Abe and his wife Akie, joined an estimated 11,500 fans at Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium to watch massive and muscular men, in bare feet and loin cloths, battle for supremacy in a small ring of dirt.
At the match’s end, Mr Trump stepped into the ring and presented the eagle-topped President’s Cup to the champion, Asanoyama. Mr Trump, the first American president to participate in such a ceremony, said later it was an “incredible evening”.
“That was something to see, these great athletes,” Mr Trump said before having dinner with the Abes.
Mr Trump’s four-day state visit to Japan is designed to demonstrate the strength of the US-Japan alliance. Earlier Sunday, Mr Abe warmly welcomed Mr Trump to Mobara Country Club, south of Tokyo, for a round of golf, their fifth since Mr Trump became president.
Mr Abe is trying to placate Mr Trump amid growing US-Japan trade tensions and the threat of auto tariffs. Japan also is contending with the continued military threat from North Korea, a concern seemingly heightened by Mr Trump’s apparent dismissal of the North’s recent tests of short-range missiles that could strike Japan.
Despite several antagonistic presidential tweets, the day was all about keeping Mr Trump happy.
First it was golf. Mr Trump and Mr Abe played 16 holes, joined by Japanese pro Isao Aoki. On the lunch menu: Double cheeseburgers made with US beef.
Then Mr Abe introduced Mr Trump to Japan’s ancient sport of sumo wrestling , which Mr Trump has said he finds “fascinating”.
Loud applause greeted Mr Trump as he entered the arena and took his seat a few rows behind the ring. It was a break from the custom of sitting cross-legged on a mat.
The Japan Sumo Association instituted some safety precautions due to Mr Trump’s participation, including selling fewer same-day tickets and banning the ritual of throwing seat cushions as an expression of disappointment.
Mr Trump sat with his arms crossed over his chest for much of the time, and when the match ended, he walked onto the stage wearing dark slippers — shoes are banned from the ring — to present the cup.
Mr Trump read from a scroll, praising Asanoyama’s “outstanding achievement.” He hoisted the hefty cup, which the White House said was 54 inches tall and weighed 60-70lbs, into Asanoyama’s arms with the help of an official. Asanoyama also received trophies from Mr Abe and the emperor.
Mr Trump had the trophy made for the sumo winner, and Japanese media informally called it the Trump Cup.
Mr Trump’s attendance at the annual sumo tournament recalled the time he spent promoting the World Wrestling Federation in the United States. Mr Trump sponsored major events, appeared in bits and was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2013.
Mr Trump awaited another honour on Monday when he was to become the first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, since he ascended to the throne on May 1.
Mr Trump and Mr Abe planned more formal talks. Mr Trump also was to be the guest of honour at a banquet hosted by the emperor at Japan’s Imperial Palace.
“We’ve had a great time, a great day, and tomorrow is really the big event, a very important event in the history of Japan,” Mr Trump said just before enjoying a dinner of grilled chicken, Wagyu beef and vanilla ice cream at a restaurant with Mr Abe and their wives.
“It’s over 200 years since something like this has happened so it’s a great honour to be representing the United States.”
The Abe-Trump alliance began even before Mr Trump took office in January 2017, when Mr Abe rushed to New York to greet the president-elect at Trump Tower after his election two months earlier. Japan is deeply dependent on the US for security, and mr Abe has tried to encourage Mr Trump to maintain international agreements and keep pressure on North Korea.
Golf has been a bonding activity for two leaders who love the game.
“We were able to exchange our views frankly in a cosy atmosphere. It was wonderful,” Mr Abe said. He tweeted a selfie photo of him and Mr Trump smiling widely on the greens.
Mr Trump tweeted that he had “great fun” meeting the prime minister. But Mr Trump continued to stew about politics back home, 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!”
Tradition holds that American presidents and candidates avoid politicking while on foreign soil, but Mr Trump is not one to abide by such norms. He also tweeted negatively about Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, a former vice president.
Mr Trump played down North Korea’s recent series of short-range missile tests and tried to lower expectations that he and Mr Abe will make significant headway on trade issues at their Monday meeting.
Mr Trump has sought a bilateral deal with Tokyo since he pulled the US from the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement two years ago, though analysts expect no breakthroughs during the trip.
“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.
Mr Trump has threatened Japan with new tariffs on imports of cars and auto parts, citing national security grounds.
He has suggested he will impose levies if the US cannot win concessions from Japan and the European Union.