By Chiaki Sawada
President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrated their close relationship at the Japan-U.S. summit with their firm handshakes and tight embrace. During their joint news conference, Trump nodded while listening to Abe’s remarks in Japanese without using his simultaneous interpretation earphone. Did the two leaders have so much telepathy that there was no need for interpretation or was it not even necessary for him to listen to what Abe was saying?
When Abe thanked the American people for their hospitality in Japanese, Trump was all smiles, nodding approvingly. He did not use his earphone until Abe finished. However, he seemed to realize the earphone was there at some point, so he used it when fielding questions from Japanese reporters.
What can be gleaned from how the earphone was used at the Trump-Abe joint news conference?
Diplomatic journalist Ryuichi Tejima first noted that “this might have been the President’s first news conference with simultaneous interpretation, so he might not be used to it.” He pointed out that “what the bilateral summit achieved was the confirmation that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands. This was already agreed in the joint statement, so the President might have felt secure that apart from some minor details, the Prime Minister would not say anything bad about him or raise any controversial points.”
Ukeru Magosaki, a former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat and an expert on diplomacy, commented: “Interpretation earphones are indispensable at joint news conferences held after summit meetings because the leaders are very anxious to know how the other leader discussed subtle points of disagreement during their discussions. If the President was completely unperturbed by what the Prime Minister was saying, this means that there was nothing negative in what they talked about.” He added: “The Prime Minister offered to strengthen Japan’s security cooperation, which means doing what the U.S. wants. The U.S. may begin to demand increasing the defense budget, deploying the Self-Defense Forces in the war against terrorism, and so forth.”
Foreign affairs commentator Naoto Amaki also stated: “The top priority of Japanese bureaucrats in this summit meeting was not to allow the President to make demands on the Prime Minister directly, in order to avoid hurting him and his close aides. For this reason, Japan met every single demand of the U.S., such as expanding its security role. The news conference was only about reconfirming the Japan-U.S. alliance, which the President couldn’t care less about. He only needed to read the prepared notes and had no need to listen to the Prime Minister.” He further said: “Both the summit meeting and the news conference were mere ceremonies to demonstrate their close relationship. The U.S. will probably begin to make its real demands, such as increasing Japan’s defense budget.” (Abridged)