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Departing Japanese envoy to U.S. speaks to Asahi Shimbun

By Koji Sonoda, Washington correspondent


Shinsuke Sugiyama joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1977. After serving as Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Vice-Minister Minister for Foreign Affairs, he was appointed the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. in 2018. Sugiyama will be succeeded by Koji Tomita, Japanese Ambassador to South Korea.


Shinsuke Sugiyama, who is leaving the post of Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. on Jan. 25, gave an interview to the Asahi Shimbun and spoke about the “honeymoon” between former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former President Donald Trump, as well as what we should expect in the Japan-U.S. relationship going forward.


The relationship between Abe and Trump started with Abe’s visit with then-President-elect Trump in New York in 2016. A visit by a prime minister before the new president’s inauguration was unprecedented, and the meeting with Abe became Trump’s first meeting with a world leader after the election. According to Sugiyama, some in the Japanese government had thought that Abe should wait a little while before meeting Trump, at least until they received formal briefings from the U.S. government. However, Abe “instinctively understood Trump’s personality and style, and decided that meeting and talking face-to-face would be the best way to proceed.”


Trump’s opinions expressed on the campaign trail, such as withdrawal of the U.S. military stationed in Japan, made it important for Abe to hold a meeting with him. “Trump’s understanding of Japan was not necessarily accurate, and his view of Japan was very critical,” Sugiyama pointed out, adding, “Prime Minister Abe decided it would be best if he met with President Trump and spoke to him about the issues of particular importance such as the Japan-U.S. bilateral relationship and the situation in the East Asia region.”


The two leaders continued to deepen personal ties through frequent conversations and golf. Abe recommended Trump for a Nobel Prize for his North Korea policy and invited him as the first state guest to meet with Japan’s new Emperor. Those moves were criticized as “diplomacy by flattery.” Sugiyama disagrees. “Japan enjoys a very good relationship with the U.S. in the areas of economy, diplomacy and security. It was only natural that we invited the U.S. President as a state guest.”


In June 2019, Trump expressed frustration that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is “not fair,” and even suggested a need for its revision. Trump’s criticism stemmed from aspects of the treaty including the U.S.’s responsibility to defend Japan while Japan doesn’t have such responsibility toward the U.S. Sugiyama appreciated that “President Trump has sharp political instincts,” but acknowledged that “from the viewpoint of the likes of us who have long worked on the Japan-U.S. security framework, I must say there was a considerable discrepancy between his understanding [and the reality].”


Under the security treaty, Japan has provided the U.S. military with bases and base facilities. And the security law has enabled Japan to protect the U.S. military vessels and exercise the right of collective self-defense. Citing these developments, Sugiyama said, “Through talks between the two leaders as well as between the senior officials of both administrations, the Trump administration’s understanding [of the security treaty] deepened. It’s not that he completely changed his mind about Japan, but his opinions became quite different from the ones he had in the beginning.”


The U.S. political scene will be different under the new administration of President Biden. However, Sugiyama believes the U.S. view of China, with whom its relationship deteriorated considerably during the Trump administration, will remain “harsh among both Republicans and Democrats.” He said, “President Biden as well as most people in the key positions of the government share the same basic view of China.” He added, however, that “Japan is close to China geographically and shares aspects of its culture and society,” and expressed his belief that instead of containing China, a dialogue is equally important to convince the country to act as a responsible member of the global community.  

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