TOKYO—The Japanese have had low expectations of President Donald Trump since he took office, and his “golfing diplomacy” trip here this week convinced many that even those expectations were too high.
In a January poll almost 90 percent of Japanese women believed that Trump’s presidency would hurt U.S and Japan relations. Only one in four Japanese believe he’ll do the right thing in international politics. There may never have been an American president as unpopular and secretly unwelcome in post-war Japan.
But that did not stop his counterpart in Japanese politics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and first lady Akie from rolling out the red carpet—and the pearls—for Trump’s entourage. And for the most part, the budding “Shinzo and Donald” bromance seems to have gone well. That’s not surprising: They were both born wealthy, love to play golf, are militarists, egoists, have a poor sense of humor, hate the press, and have popularity ratings below 40 percent.
Although nothing concrete was achieved on this visit, there were lessons to be learned from the Not-So-Great Communicator’s Japanese sojourn:
Almost nobody is sure what Trump is saying and only some of that is because it’s lost in translation.
After Trump took office, there was a brief boom among Japanese publishers printing books full of his quotes. The problem was that much of what he said when translated into Japanese, didn’t make a lot of sense. The popular Twitter account, “Trump’s Tweets Today In Japanese” which has over 34,000 followers, stopped posting on June 15 this year. There was semi-serious speculation on Japan’s internet bulletin boards that the account writer had succumbed to death from overwork (karoshi) after trying to keep up with and decipher the president’s endless tweets.
Trump’s rhetorical style might be called “fill in the blank,” and his core supporters are used to doing just that. They get, or think they get, the gist of everything he’s trying to tell them. But translators cannot and probably should not make those sorts of cognitive leaps.
Indeed, trying to translate Trump’s twittering into Japanese is a colossal headache because Japanese readers expect the president to sound presidential. Here’s a retranslation of the Japanese translation of Trump’s tweet concerning former FBI Director James Comey on June 11:
Translation: “I believe there may be more leaks coming from James Comey. Are they completely illegal? Of course they are and they are low-down.”
OK, that sounds rational and mildly statesman-like. The punctuation makes sense, too.
The original tweet and punctuation: “I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible. Totally illegal? Very ‘cowardly!’”
Shizuka Anderson, a professional interpreter, says translating Trump is like walking through a field of linguistic landmines.
“One of the difficulties of translating Trump’s tweets is honestly that he uses such childish and informal grammar that the translator is almost at risk of not sounding entirely credible. [You’d lose face.] He also has a tendency to use a lot of buzzwords and even slang that could be tricky to translate coherently into Japanese.”
Anderson hosted a children’s show for Japanese kids learning English for several years, so she doesn’t have a problem understanding Trump’s vocabulary. It’s the syntax and meaning that pose a problem.
While translating Trump’s tweets would be a herculean task, as the founder of “Trump’s Tweets Today In Japanese” must know, interpreting for him would be a nightmare, she says.
“He also uses rather childish grammar and sentence structure while speaking, making it rather tricky to interpret his spoken words coherently to listeners without resorting to simply summarizing the gist of what he was trying to say… or guessing what he was trying to say.”
Yes, guessing what Trump was trying to say is a challenge. Trump doesn’t only get lost in interpretation in Japanese—he gets lost in interpretation in English as well. Pity the foreign correspondent who has to cover Trump in their own language because it often involves the same kind of guess work that may be necessary in good interpreting.
On Monday, Trump made caustic remarks about the $69 billion trade deficit between Japan and the United States and seemed to suggest a solution: that Japan should build cars in the U.S. That made little sense if you know most Japanese cars sold in the United States are also made there.
Here’s the money quote, verbatim:
“Several Japanese automobile industry firms have been really doing a job. And we love it when you build cars—if you’re a Japanese firm, we love it—try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask? That’s not rude. Is that rude? I don’t think so. (Laughter.) If you could build them.”
In fact, three out of four of the Japanese brand cars sold in the U.S. are manufactured in the United States. Japanese automakers already employ roughly 850,000 U.S. workers.
The BBC, CNBC, myself (yep), and others ran with the story that Trump was ignorantly asking Japan to do something it has been doing since 1984: Build cars in the United States.
Then later in the news cycle The Washington Post accused everyone else of quoting Trump out of context, arguing that the quote was cherry-picked. Some outlets walked back their stories, because really, who wants to argue with The Washington Post? Some did not. But even when you read the full remarks, what becomes very clear is that Trump doesn’t make much sense.
Trump seems to have no idea of how many Japanese cars are made in the U.S. and his knowledge of the problem is shallow at best. When Trump says, “If you could build them” does he mean, “Please build them” or “If you have the capability of building them”? Does he mean build more cars in the United States, or build all the cars in the United States? Again it’s unclear.
He also completely fails to understand why Japanese people don’t want to buy American cars. If you’d like to understand quickly, import a British car—as is—and try driving it in Los Angeles traffic. Cars in Japan, like those in Britain, are right-hand drive.
What is clear is that Trump still misunderstands the role Japanese automakers have in the U.S. economy. In January, his failure to understand Toyota’s business model in the USA resulted in his blasting out a tweet that caused the company’s stock value to plummet $1.2 billion dollars in five minutes. Toyota was not happy.
The Japanese media treats “Shinzo and Donald” with kid gloves—and Abe can’t golf.
Under Prime Minister Abe’s regime, Japan’s world press freedom ranking has declined from 11th place to 72nd place. The mainstream media are very guarded in their reporting on anything that might incur the wrath of Prime Minister Abe. NHK, the publicly funded broadcast network which is now overseen by Abe’s political appointees, has become such a cheerleader for the administration that it’s been likened to state propaganda.
To the surprise and annoyance of most of its viewers, NHK had a live broadcast of Trump’s arrival and his parade all the way to the exclusive Kasumigaseki golf course. The golf course also has issues; it was a sexist private golf club that until this year banned women from becoming full members or playing on Sundays.
Despite the club’s history of sexism, the fact that Abe chose it as the site of their golf match may shed a little light on why Japan’s ranking in gender equality dropped another three notches this year to a new low of 114 out of 144 countries.
Abe later told the press that his “golf diplomacy” had paid off, resulting in “deep conversations.” However, reporters who cover the prime minister said that Abe was constantly falling behind, got caught in a sand-trap, made terrible shots and only had short conversations with Trump toward the end of the game. Those who were able to listen to the crackle of police communications said, “It sounded like most of the time Trump was on the fairway and Abe was in the bunker or way behind. Even the security officers started snickering at the updates.”
During the golf game, the two were also joined by the fourth-ranked golfer in the world, Hideki Matsuyama. After finishing the match, the leaders sang each other’s praises on Twitter. Trump called Abe and Matsuyama “wonderful people.”
While the two praised each other lavishly, the Japanese public and the tabloids weren’t so kind. Some media called the golf diplomacy “a great big failure” and wrote that the price would be Japan buying expensive military equipment from the U.S. it didn’t need and can’t use. Social media was abuzz with remarks along the lines of:
“Abe said that North Korea was an impending national threat during the elections and now he’s playing golf with Trump? Crazy.”
The snarky evening newspaper, Nikkan Gendai, also lovingly called Trump, “The Rabid Dog President.”
He does seem to have a love/hate relationship with the Land of the Rising Sun. While in Japan, Trump praised it as “a country of samurai warriors” and a strong ally of the U.S., now and in the future. But on Nov. 4, on his way here, he tweeted, “Remember Pearl Harbor.” And after leaving Japan, at a banquet held by the South Korean government, he hugged an 88-year-old “comfort woman.”
Comfort woman is a euphemism for the women who were forced to service Japanese troops sexually in the Imperial Japan era. “Shinzo” doesn’t want to admit these women ever existed or that Japan committed atrocities during the war. The hug must have felt like a cold shoulder to the revisionist Abe. If Trump was trying to keep that warm fuzzy feeling with the prime minister alive, it was the wrong move.
The one thing that Trump did right.
There was one thing Trump did do right. He met with Japanese people who had family members abducted by North Korea. Starting in the 1970s, an unknown number of Japanese citizens were kidnapped by the North Koreans, right off Japan’s beaches, to train spies for North Korea. Only a few of them have been returned to Japan and the fate of the others remains unknown. It is a never-ending point of contention between Japan and North Korea—as it should be.
Trump’s talk with family members of the abducted played well here, although some of the family members later said they felt the whole meeting was just a performance and that it would change little.
Perhaps the most apt criticism of Trump’s visit comes from one of the abductee family members, Toru Hasuike. He is the the brother of abductee Kaoru Hasuike. Kaoru was kidnapped and imprisoned in North Korea for 22 years until he was allowed to return in 2002. Toru Hasuike, as an advocate and a spokesman for the other abductee families, played an important role in getting his brother and the others back to Japan. But he has grown impatient with Abe over the years and disillusioned with the Japanese government’s handling of the problem.
In fact, Hasuike essentially has been banned from Japan’s airwaves after penning a book in 2015 that loosely translates as The Cold-Blooded Prime Minister Abe and Faces of the Others Standing By and Watching North Korean Abductees Die. Hasuike was also a former worker at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), a firm whose corporate malfeasance resulted in a nuclear meltdown that displaced thousands and may have indirectly caused death and injury to hundreds. He blew the whistle on his former bosses after the accident. His vision of Japan is understandably bleak.
Hasuike, because he has nothing to lose, was very blunt. “Most people in Japan know this whole visit was a farce. Abe looks good. Trump gets Japan to buy more weapons, the hostages are used as political capital to justify hard-line tactics with North Korea. Nothing changes.”
He did have one question, “Why don’t you [Americans] take Trump’s smartphone away? I don’t know and the Japanese people don’t know who or what to believe anymore. Do we believe your State Department or Defense Department heads? Or do we believe the president’s off-the-wall tweets? It’s crazy.”
It is indeed. It’s crazy and it’s especially frustrating for the Japanese people. Because now that “Trump’s Tweets Today In Japanese” has gone silent, figuring out what the U.S. president wants or means has never been harder.