The Washington Post reports that during a fraught discussion in June with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over trade policy, President Donald Trump blurted out, “I remember Pearl Harbor” before launching into “a blistering critique of Japan’s economic policies.”
Trump’s comment might seem rude, undiplomatic, and impertinent, but it also points to a larger pattern in how the president relates to Japan (and other foreign countries). Trump seems to have only a few stock ideas about Japan, all of which are out of date. According to The Washington Post, a diplomat noted that “the president relishes historical references and frequently brings up Japan’s ‘samurai past.’” Meanwhile, Trump’s entire sense of Japan’s economy seems to be rooted in the 1980s and 1990s, when it loomed as a serious rival to the United States.
Like other world leaders such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, Shinzo Abe is banking heavily on cultivating a personal relationship with Trump. So far, this hasn’t worked so well for Abe, who has constantly flattered the president but gotten little in return aside from punishing tariffs and a sidelining of Japan in the nuclear talks with North Korea.
But as long as Abe is committed to trying to butter up Trump, it’s unlikely the Japanese prime minister will tell the American president that his historical references are threadbare and crude.