It was a day of sumo-sized diplomacy.
Plenty of world leaders have tried to butter up President Donald Trump with flattery and favors. Japan’s Shinzo Abe on Sunday raised the bar for all of them.
First Abe treated his friend to a round of golf (with tweeted selfie). Then the prime minister allowed Trump to take center stage at a sumo wrestling match, where he spent the better part of the day watching large men in loin cloths and bare feet brawl inside a ring.
When it was over, Trump did what no other American president has done. Climbing into the elevated dirt ring, or “dohyo,” in ceremonial slippers, Trump presented a hulking 60-pound trophy to the tournament champion — a cup that Trump said he hoped would be used for “many hundreds of years.”
“I hereby award you the United States President’s Cup,” Trump told Asanoyama, the sumo champion, as he read from a scroll.
From there, it was off to a “couple’s dinner” for the Trumps and Abes.
The golf, sumo, dinner — with a cheeseburger lunch wedged in — were part of a diplomatic package designed by Abe to stay on Trump’s good side amid tensions between their governments over trade and other issues.
Sunday was all about keeping Trump happy. An effusive Abe described their buddy time as “cozy.”
It began with 16 holes of golf at Mobara Country Club, where they were joined by Japanese pro Isao Aoki. On the lunch menu: double cheeseburgers, made with U.S. beef.
Abe next introduced Trump to Japan’s ancient sport of sumo wrestling, which Trump had previously said he finds “fascinating.” Even so, at times he appeared somewhat bored at Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium.
Loud applause greeted Trump as he entered the arena and took his seat a few rows behind the ring, in a break from the custom of sitting cross-legged on cushions. Trump, Abe and their wives were among an estimated 11,500 fans there to see who would claim the title.
The Japan Sumo Association put in place special safety precautions because of Trump’s presence, including selling fewer same-day tickets and banning the ritual of the tossing of seat cushions by those disappointed with the outcome.
Match over, Trump walked onto the stage in dark slippers — shoes are banned from the ring — to present the cup.
The president praised Asanoyama’s “outstanding achievement” and then hoisted the trophy, which the White House said was 54 inches (137 centimeters) tall, into Asanoyama’s arms with assistance from an official. Asanoyama also received trophies from Abe and on behalf of the emperor.
It was fitting entertainment for the businessman president who in past times helped promote the World Wrestling Federation back home. Trump sponsored major events, appeared in bits and was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2013.
He tweeted after the match that it was his “great honor to present the first-ever President’s Cup.”
Another honor awaited Trump on Monday when was set to become, at Abe’s invitation, the first head of state to meet Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, who succeeded his father on May 1. Trump also was to be the guest of honor at a banquet hosted by the emperor at Japan’s Imperial Palace.
Beyond all the pageantry, Trump and Abe scheduled talks Monday and planned to hold a joint news conference. But Trump set measured expectations for what would be accomplished, tweeting that serious trade negotiations with the Japanese “will wait until after their July elections,” referring to upcoming parliamentary elections.
As for Sunday, Trump summed it up thus just before a hibachi dinner with Abe and their wives: “We’ve had a great time, a great day, and tomorrow is really the big event, a very important event in the history of Japan. It’s over 200 years since something like this has happened so it’s a great honor to be representing the United States.”
Abe sought quickly after the 2016 U.S. election to build a rapport with Trump, rushing to New York so the two could get acquainted before Trump took office. Japan relies on the U.S. for security and Abe has encouraged Trump to maintain international agreements and keep pressure on North Korea.
A mutual love of golf has helped the friendship flourish.
“We were able to exchange our views frankly in a cozy atmosphere. It was wonderful,” Abe told reporters as he returned to his official residence after the golf game. He tweeted a selfie of him and Trump smiling widely on the greens.
Trump tweeted that he’d had “Great fun and meeting with Prime Minister @AbeShinzo.”
For all of the over-the-top camaraderie of the day, the two countries have serious differences to work through.
Trump has threatened Japan with tariffs on imports of autos and auto parts on national security grounds. He has suggested he will impose the levies if the U.S. can’t win concessions from Japan and the European Union. Japan’s trade surplus surged almost 18% in April to 723 billion yen ($6.6 billion).
Trump is also playing down North Korea’s recent series of short-range missile tests, which are of particular concern to neighboring Japan.
Even in the thick of a four-day state visit in which Trump is the center of attention in Japan, the president continued to stew about politics back home.
He claimed in a tweet that “numerous” Japanese officials had told him that Democrats would rather see the U.S. fail than see Trump or his Republican Party succeed.
Tradition holds that American presidents and political candidates avoid politicking while on foreign soil, but Trump frequently disregards such norms. He tweeted fresh digs about Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, a former vice president.