Trump and ‘Shinzo’: Mutual praise, fist bumps and bromance

Odd friendship: Leaders indicate that thanks to them, US and Japan have never been closer

Among the books reportedly by the bedside of Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, is The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump's biographical ode to sharp-elbowed capitalism.

Abe appeared to borrow from the book's brash credo last November: While the rest of the world groped for clues on how to deal with America's unpredictable president-elect, Abe jumped on a plane and went to meet him, carrying a symbolic omiage (gift) – a gold-plated golf driver.

Since then, the two have struck up an odd friendship: the brash, Twitter-addled New Yorker who has spent a lifetime swinging metaphorical fists in the US property market, and the scion of a blueblood Japanese political family, cursed with a delicate stomach.

Throughout Trump's stay in Japan, the two have played up their bromance, praising each other lavishly, exchanging fist-bumps on the fairway and letting the world know that thanks to them America and Japan have never been closer. Donald Trump may be the only person in the world, apart from Mr Abe's wife, to call him "Shinzo".

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Their rapport is not as strange as it seems. Both are patriots, and Abe has repeatedly shown he has a better rapport with strongmen such as Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte. Colleagues say he found Barack Obama, Trump's cerebral predecessor, aloof.

Confrontational approach

Abe is eager for Japan to play a bigger role in any pushback against a rising China and prefers Trump's confrontational approach to North Korea, ignoring criticism that it is reckless.

The intemperate language of last year, when Trump moaned that the Japanese were getting a free ride on defence from America, and could "sit home and watch Sony television" if America was attacked, has been forgotten.

Abe has worked hard on this relationship. Before last year’s meeting, he reportedly employed psychological experts to help him understand how America’s future leader ticked. Among the advice was a warning not to directly contradict Mr Trump or talk down to him.

Out on a limb

Abe subsequently went out on a limb by calling Trump "a leader who can be trusted". The president rewarded this vote of trust by pulling America out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that Abe has pushed hard to ratify. The huge deal is now back in play – without the United States.

That outcome underlines the political risk of Abe’s friendship with a man who has seldom met someone he couldn’t sell out: Despite winning another general election last month, Abe’s popularity is fragile and many Japanese dislike his overtures to the American president.

A survey by the Japan Times last week found that over 43 per cent of respondents view the deepening bond as "bad for Japan".

Behind the friendship is the cold calculus of trade and defence. Japanese conservatives see no alternative to the American military umbrella, under which they have sheltered for decades. Who will tell Trump that with the exception of military hardware, most Japanese have little interest in the products that America makes?