Trump Tells Japan It Can Protect Itself by Buying US Arms

Mr. Trump’s remarks came on a day of high pomp and plain-spoken politics, which showcased both the president’s fitful adjustment to the rituals of statecraft and his determination to keeping pounding at the hot-button issues that vaulted him into the White House.

Before midday, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko welcomed Mr. Trump and his wife, Melania, at the Imperial residence. Afterward, the president was formally received by Mr. Abe on a red carpet at Akasaka Palace, a neo-Baroque building that resembles Buckingham Palace. The two men inspected an honor guard, glittering in gold braid, their rifles fixed with bayonets.

Earlier, however, Mr. Trump used a breakfast meeting of Japanese and American business executives to deliver a scathing critique of the trade relationship between the two countries. Japan, he said, bought virtually no cars from the United States while exporting millions of vehicles into the American market.

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The president and the first lady, Melania Trump, met Monday at Akasaka with the relatives of Japanese abducted by North Korea. Mr. Trump said their return would send a “tremendous signal.”

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

“Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over,” Mr. Trump said, disregarding the fact that Japanese carmakers have built huge assembly plants in the United States. “That’s not too much to ask,” he continued. “Is that rude to ask?”

In somewhat gentler terms, Mr. Trump told Mr. Abe that the United States was seeking a new kind of trade relationship. Though he praised the Japanese economy, the president added, “I don’t know if it’s as good as ours. I think not, O.K.?” he said, shooting Mr. Abe a gimlet-eyed glance. “And we’re going to try to keep it that way, and you’ll be second.”

Still, Mr. Trump also showed a keen appreciation of the domestic politics of his host. At Mr. Abe’s behest, the president met with the families of Japanese people kidnapped by North Korea, an issue that has deep political resonance among Japanese.

At the news conference, Mr. Trump likened the plight of these families to that of the family of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months and died a few days after being returned to the United States in a coma-like state.

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Whether by design or otherwise, Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly rejected the idea of direct negotiations with North Korea over curbing its nuclear program, seemed to suggest his stance could change if Mr. Kim returned the Japanese people his regime had abducted. North Korea has said that most of the abductees are dead.

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“Now the spotlight is on, and perhaps we could have some very good luck, and perhaps the regime itself would send them back,” Mr. Trump said. “I think it would be a tremendous signal if Kim Jong-un would send them back. If he would send them back that would be the start of something — I think it would be just something very special if they would do that.”

Mr. Abe, for his part, played to his guest’s appetite for ceremony — and spontaneity. As the two leaders strolled to lunch in a private dining room overlooking a koi pond, they were each given a wooden box of fish food and a spoon. After a few moments of delicately spooning the flakes into the pond, a restless Mr. Abe tossed in the remains of his box, leading Mr. Trump to dump his, too.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe then took seats at a long, low table on a floor covered with straw tatami mats. At the news conference, the prime minister referred repeatedly to Mr. Trump by his first name, Donald, recounting their meetings at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Florida estate, and a dinner here on Sunday so enjoyable that he said they lost track of time.

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Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe feeding the koi at Akasaka. The president saluted the prime minister as among his closest friends in the club of world leaders.

Credit
Doug Mills/The New York Times

“How many hours of dialogue have we had?” Mr. Abe asked. “I believe there have been never been such close bonds.”

Mr. Abe reacted mildly to reports in the Japanese media — which Mr. Trump implicitly confirmed during the news conference — that Mr. Trump was dismayed by Japan’s decision not to shoot down missiles North Korea fired over Japanese territory in August and September. The missiles flew over the island of Hokkaido before landing harmlessly in the sea.

In conversations with other Asian leaders, a senior American official said, Mr. Trump asked why a country of “samurai warriors” did not shoot down the missiles, which the North Koreans launched in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Trump did not directly address the issue on Monday, though he noted that over the weekend an American antimissile system had shot down a missile fired on Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Japan had tracked the missiles North Korea fired over Japan, Mr. Abe said, and would have shot them down if they had posed a threat to Japanese citizens.

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Japan’s American-made missile defense systems would have enabled it to shoot down the missile that flew over Hokkaido on Aug. 29, though not a subsequent one tested on Sept. 15. It is also possible Japan could have missed if it tried to shoot the missiles down, which would have been an acute embarrassment.

Legally, the question is even more complicated. Japan can only intercept a missile if its citizens are in danger or if there is an attack on an allied country that could jeopardize Japan’s security, said Noboru Yamaguchi, professor of international relations at the International University of Japan in Niigata.

Since North Korea has so far only conducted missile tests — as opposed to launching missiles armed with live warheads — Japan does not have the legal right to intercept them. Moreover, said Mr. Yamaguchi who is a retired lieutenant general in Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, the prime minister would need approval from Japan’s Parliament for any such action.

Mr. Yamaguchi dismissed Mr. Trump’s reference to samurai warriors as a caricature. “Samurais are quiet up until the last moment,” he said. “And at the last moment, samurais do things decisively.”

Motoko Rich contributed reporting.


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