Whatever one may think of Donald Trump, he has been remarkably consistent in his views of Japan over the past 30 years. What is puzzling is why he has adhered to the same views despite the changes in Japan, the United States, and the world since the 1980s.
Trump’s View of Japan, 1987-1990
On Sept. 2, 1987, Trump paid $94,801.00 to run full-page advertisements in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe that began:
“For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States. . . . Over the years, the Japanese, unimpeded by the huge costs of defending themselves (as long as the United States will do it for free), have built a strong and vibrant economy with unprecedented surpluses. They have brilliantly managed to maintain a weak yen against a strong dollar. This, coupled with our monumental spending for their, and others, defense, has moved Japan to the forefront of world economies.”
On April 25, 1988, he expounded on Japan on the “Oprah Winfrey Show”:
“We let Japan come in and dump everything into our markets. It’s not free trade. If you ever go to Japan right now and try to sell something, forget about it. Just forget about it. It’s almost impossible. They don’t have laws against it, they just make it impossible. They come over here, they sell their cars, their VCRs, they knock the hell out of our companies. And, hey, I have tremendous respect for the Japanese people. I mean, you can respect somebody that’s beating the hell out of you, but they are beating the hell out of this country.”
In the March 1990 issue of Playboy magazine, Trump again explained his views of Japan:
Interviewer: How do you feel about Japan’s economic pre-eminence?
Trump: Japan gets almost 70 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, relies on ships led back home by our destroyers, battleships, helicopters, frogmen. Then the Japanese sail home, where they give the oil to fuel their factories so that they can knock the hell out of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. Their openly screwing us is a disgrace. Why aren’t they paying us? The Japanese cajole us, they bow to us, they tell us how great we are and then they pick our pockets. We’re losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year while they laugh at our stupidity. The Japanese have their great scientists making cars and VCRs and we have our great scientists making missiles so we can defend Japan. Why aren’t we being reimbursed for our costs? The Japanese double-screw the U.S., a real trick: First they take all our money with their consumer goods, then they put it back in buying all of Manhattan. So either way, we lose.
Interviewer: You’re opposed to Japanese buying real estate in the U.S.?
Trump: I have great respect for the Japanese people and list many of them as great friends. But, hey, if you want to open up a business in Japan, good luck. It’s virtually impossible. But the Japanese can buy our buildings, our Wall Street firms, and there’s virtually nothing to stop them. In fact, bidding on a building in New York is an act of futility, because the Japanese will pay more than it’s worth just to screw us. They want to own Manhattan. . . .It’s an embarrassment! I give great credit to the Japanese and their leaders, because they have made our leaders look totally second-rate.”
Trump’s View of Japan, 2015-2016
Trump’s views of Japan today are remarkably similar to those he expressed in his 1987 newspaper ads, 1988 television appearance, and 1990 magazine interview. Since officially launching his presidential campaign in June 2015, he has focused on four issues related to Japan.
First, he accuses Japan of “stealing our jobs.” He promises that, if elected president, “We are going bring back jobs from Japan.” He asserts that Japan and other countries are “winning” and the U.S. is “losing”: “When did we beat Japan at anything?” Trump said in announcing his candidacy on June 16, 2015. “They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time.”
He later told CNN, “I am going to bring jobs back from China, from Mexico, Japan and Vietnam and India…and all these places that are taking our jobs and I’m going to bring back jobs.”
Second, he claims that trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), are detrimental to the U.S. because for the negotiations “we use political hacks [who] don’t have any business ability.” In a speech in Mobile, Ala., on Aug. 21, 2015, Trump had this to say: “Japan has Abe, who’s the new prime minister. And Abe is really smart. I mean, he’s smart. I met him one time. He’s sharp. . . .He’s negotiating against [Ambassador to Japan] Caroline Kennedy. . . .[who is] “being wined and dined by Abe and all these killers. . . . She’ll do anything they want. Anything.”
He went on to denounce what he said are “disastrous trade deals” the U.S. has entered into, including NAFTA, that “steal jobs from American workers and make us poorer.”
Third, Trump accuses Japan of manipulating its currency. He often cites the case of his friend, an American business executive who owns an excavation company and was forced to buy Komatsu earth-moving equipment for the first time because of Japan’s policy of undervaluing the yen. He elaborated in his Sept. 3, 2015 interview with The Economist:
“Caterpillar is having a hard time selling because Komatsu is undercutting them. Japan is doing a big number on the yen, devaluing it. . . . [My friend] said Caterpillar can’t compete because they have so killed the yen. And he feels very unhappy about it.”
Finally, Trump claims that the U.S.-Japan security relationship is unfair “If somebody attacks Japan, we have to immediately go and start World War III, okay? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair. Does that sound good?”
In his May 26 interview with The New York Times, Trump elaborated, as follows:
“At some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world. And unfortunately, we have a nuclear world now. And you have, Pakistan has them. You have, probably, North Korea has them. I mean, they don’t have delivery yet, but you know, probably, I mean to me, that’s a big problem. And, would I rather have North Korea have them with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case. In other words, where Japan is defending itself against North Korea, which is a real problem. You very well may have a better case right there. We certainly haven’t been able to do much with him and with North Korea. But you may very well have a better case.
“You know, one of the things with the, with our Japanese relationship, and I’m a big fan of Japan, by the way. I have many, many friends there. I do business with Japan. But, that, if we are attacked, they don’t have to do anything. If they’re attacked, we have to go out with full force. You understand. That’s a pretty one-sided agreement, right there. In other words, if we’re attacked, they do not have to come to our defense, if they’re attacked, we have to come totally to their defense. And that is a, that’s a real problem.”
In addition to his speeches and interviews, his views of Japan are revealed in his tweets. Here are a few examples, in chronological order:
April 25, 2014: “We allow Japan to sell us millions of cars with zero import tax and we can’t make a trade deal with them — our country is in big trouble!”
April 22, 2015: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an attack on America’s business. It does not stop Japan’s currency manipulation. This is a bad deal.”
May 19, 2015: “TPP does not stop Japan’s currency manipulation & China has a backdoor to join. It must be stopped. We need to protect the American worker!”
June 13, 2015: “I love japen [sic]. I’m always watching animey [sic] and reading the mango [sic].”
May 29, 2016: “Does President Obama ever discuss the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor while he’s in Japan? Thousands of American lives lost.”
As shown in the quotations above, Trump repeatedly expresses his admiration and respect for Japan. He usually refers to Japan less to criticize it than to use it as ammunition to excoriate U.S. officials, both Democrats and Republicans. He often explains, “I’m not criticizing the Japanese. They are fine people, and I have many Japanese friends. But they are really smart, and they take advantage of our incompetent government officials. I’m going to change that. I know many smart businessmen, like Carl Icahn, who know how to negotiate with these guys and get us deals where America wins!”
Trump’s approach to business is more zero-sum than plus-sum. He focuses single-mindedly on “winning the deal.” On Page 45 of his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” he writes, “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
This black-or-white, win-or-lose approach to business stands in contrast to traditional Japanese notions of compromise, splitting the difference, or trying to create a “win-win” outcome where both parties will benefit from the transaction.
In addition, Trump’s focus is transaction-by-transaction. That is, getting the maximum short-term outcome from the specific transaction in question is the goal rather than forging a long-term relationship with the other party. Trump is famous for filing lawsuits to threaten and extract payment from not only business rivals and competitors but also from business partners. This habitual use of lawsuits is chronicled in “The Art of the Deal.” He focuses exclusively on winning the deal, not on fostering human relationships.
Finally, he teaches on Page 50 of “The Art of the Deal” that to win the deal, a key element is to “maximize your options” by always keeping the other party off-balance and guessing. And on Page 46 of his 2015 book “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again,” he writes: “Tipping your hand is one of the dumbest mistakes you can make. . . .I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing — or thinking. I like being unpredictable. It keeps them off-balance.”
In his Washington Post interview of March 21, Trump reiterates, “I always say we [the U.S.] have to be unpredictable. We’re totally predictable. And predictable is bad.”
This is the polar opposite of the Japanese preference for stability, continuity, predictability, and precedents. For Japan, these provide the foundations for the trust that is essential for doing business, but also for maintaining alliances between nations. An ally that is intentionally unpredictable is by definition unreliable.
As of now, most analysts believe that if the election were held tomorrow, Hillary Clinton would easily defeat Donald Trump. However, there are still almost five months until the Nov. 8 election, and no one can predict what may happen during this time. For this reason, it is important to understand the origin, content, and implications of Trump’s worldview. But assessing the precise policy implications is difficult because it is unclear to what extent Trump will attempt to do what he says he will do and to what extent legal, political, and institutional constraints will prevent him from executing his vision “To make America great again.”
What is clear is that the Republican Party has undergone a radical re-direction. After losing the election of 2012, the Republican National Committee undertook an analysis of why Mitt Romney lost and what the party needed to do to win back the White House in 2016. A principal recommendation of the Growth and Opportunity Project report issued in March 2013 was the following: “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.” In other words, the Republican Party needed to become more inclusive and diverse and to reach out to youth, women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, LGBTs, etc.
The conclusion was that if the party clung to appealing only to white males — whose proportion of the U.S. population is shrinking — the party could not win back the presidency. The irony is that the gap between the leadership of the Republican Party and the voters supporting the party has grown so huge that the standard-bearer of the party this year, Donald Trump, represents exactly the opposite of what the report recommended.
According to news reports, former President Bill Clinton had a telephone conversation with Donald Trump in late May 2015, less than a month before he announced his candidacy, in which he urged Trump to run for the presidency in the Republican primary. If true, this may be seen by future historians as a brilliant strategic move by Bill Clinton aimed at splitting the Republican Party — assuming, of course, that Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election on Nov. 8.
Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C. think tank. From 1985-1990, he served as director for Japanese affairs and as deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan and China at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). From 1990-2012, he worked as a senior business executive in Asia and served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School and has studied at Keio University and the University of Tokyo.