The Japanese government is scrambling to quiet down the uproar over a U.S. newspaper’s report that President Donald Trump told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “I remember Pearl Harbor.” It is concerned that if this report comes to gain unstoppable momentum, this may give the impression that “the Prime Minister is weak-kneed and unable to refute whatever the U.S. says.” An aide to Abe is furious, grumbling: “If someone from the Japanese side made the leak to the U.S. paper, he deserves to die a thousand times over.” However, many are of the opinion that since Trump has tweeted something to that effect before, it would not be so surprising if he said as much directly to Abe.
Looking for the culprit
A Japanese diplomatic source close to Abe said: “Someone who did not know the facts probably just said something casually. However, the report was published by a prestigious newspaper like The Washington Post, so the question is who (gave the wrong information).” He made it clear that he had nothing to do with this, emphasizing the need to identify who was responsible. He denied the report, commenting that “it is improbable for President Trump to say something like that.”
The Washington Post report, filed on Aug. 28 EST, claimed that at the Japan-U.S. summit in June, Trump remarked, “I remember Pearl Harbor” before the start of discussions on the tricky trade issues. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated categorically at his news conference on Aug. 29 that “there is no truth to this report” in an attempt to quiet down the controversy.
The report cited a Japanese government source on this information, triggering speculation that this might have been a leak from the Japanese side. Amid a bizarre “hunt for the culprit,” there is a widespread opinion that “the Foreign Ministry made the leak,” according to a Kantei source. When a senior Foreign Ministry official was asked by reporters about the veracity of the report, he said: “I was not present at the meeting, so I don’t know” and then clammed up.
Talking to several government sources, it is evident that this is perceived as a situation in which the Japan-U.S. relationship will appear to be less than rock solid unless the report is denied.
There were signs that the alleged incident might not be entirely improbable. According to a government source, Abe was hard put to answer when asked by Trump to explain his policy for resolving trade issues at the bilateral summit in June. Shortly before their teleconference on Aug. 22 requested by Trump, Abe’s aides were jittery that Japan “might be pressed to make major concessions.” In the end, nothing of that sort happened because the topic was North Korea, but Abe is certainly still wary.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono explained in a speech on Aug. 29: “We will find ourselves in a fix if (Trump says) I have good relations with Shinzo and we play golf, but these are two different matters.” It is obvious that there is a gap between reality and Abe’s claim that “the bonds between Japan and the U.S. have never been stronger.”
The government is also annoyed by The Washington Post’s report that a secret Japan-DPRK meeting took place. It is worried that the U.S. might become suspicious of Japan on account of this report that “a Japanese government official made contact with North Korea in July without informing the U.S.”
On the other hand, there is also the dilemma that unless Japan-DPRK negotiations move forward, the abduction issue cannot be resolved. Suga said at his news conference on Aug. 29: “I will refrain from commenting on each and every press report,” declining to confirm or deny the report.