When Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe shook hands with brand-new US president Donald Trump in February, Abe’s frustration was palpable. After Trump released Abe from an uncomfortably long, awkward grasp, Abe even inadvertently rolled his eyes.
His dealings with Trump over the past two days in Japan, though, were a masterclass in gracious hosting. “We have to spend more time together because I have enjoyed every minute of it,” Trump said at the state dinner at the end of the visit on Nov. 6, before adding that most Trump of superlatives, “even though he’s a very, very tough negotiator.”
While some world leaders have responded to Trump’s characteristic mix of bombast, occasional incoherence, and backtracking on threats with pragmatic politeness or weary resignation, Abe focused on flattering and soothing a president whose approval ratings at home remain historically low. Here’s how he did it:
When other world leaders visited Japan, a culinary powerhouse, they’ve indulged in the three Michelin star sushi, and stayed in a traditional Japanese inn, which are famous for their ornate multi-course dinners.
Abe greeted Trump with a burger, made from US Angus beef, served at a country club that could have been in the US:
Abe used this very phrase to describe the nine holes he played with Trump at the Kasumigaseki Country Club, saying afterward “yesterday’s golf diplomacy between Donald and me attracted so much attention, and we actually made everything public, except for the score.”
Professional golfer Hideki Matsuyama joined the two. The occasion allowed Trump to tweet a flattering video of his own swing, while praising his partners.
Abe and his wife presented the Trumps with a “table runner adorned with golden embroidery” made by a Kyoto textile designer. Gold is famously a favored color in the Trump household.
But Trump and Abe also signed caps that said “Donald and Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater” that were especially made for the US president’s visit.
In the same golf diplomacy speech, Abe noted a tip that Dwight Eisenhower imparted to his grandfather, the former prime minister of Japan. “One, once you become a President of the United States, you need to be at a table with a group of people whom you don’t like to hang out,” Abe said. “Second, when it comes to playing golf, you can play golf only with those who you really, really like to hang out.”
Trump and Abe have played golf twice now, Abe said. “When you play golf with someone not just once, but for two times, the person must be your favorite guy.”
So far, the tangible results the White House has listed from the Japan trip are minimal. They include a Toyota/Mazda deal that was previously announced in August, and an agreement to partner with Japanese manufacturers to do infrastructure projects in Asia. But Abe is clearly playing the long game.