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International relations

Tokyo going all out to secure Washington ties

Various avenues pursued to gain White House access

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Japanese lawmaker Akira Amari (R) shakes hands with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman amid the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in 2015.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has focused on building a strong one-on-one relationship with President Donald Trump -- the two have met twice since November's presidential election -- a number of Japanese lawmakers have also been exploring how to forge ties with the new administration.

In early March, members of a nonpartisan group of Japanese Diet members paid a five-day visit to Washington. The group's purpose is to promote communication between Japanese and American lawmakers.

Their mission was to gain understanding from their U.S. counterparts on their stance toward trade pacts after Trump officially withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

At the time, the White House was fully engaged in negotiations with Congress over a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act brought in by former President Barack Obama.

Akira Amari, one of the Japanese representatives and the man entrusted with the TPP negotiations, insisted that jointly establishing some kind of free-trade framework, whatever it is called, would bring economic benefits to both countries.

He backed up his claim by displaying a comparison of the U.S. capital balances with Japan and China. Republican senator Cory Gardner supported Amari's idea.

Only two of 17 U.S. participants were opposed to the suggestions. Several even joked that Trump's disapproval of the TPP was just a matter of pride and changing the name to "Trump Pacific" would see it back on the table.

Keizo Takemi, a member of the upper house and the secretary general of the group, said U.S. lawmakers are playing a greater role in the country's politics, regardless how close they are to the new administration.

Finding keys

The Japanese camp picked out three key figures during the talks: Senator Gardner who chairs the Republicans' election campaign committee; David Perdue, a Republican senator and cousin of Sonny Perdue, Trump's pick for agriculture secretary; and Ted Yoho, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific and a member of Freedom Caucus, the Republican hard-line conservative group. All three have direct connections with the administration.

The group's vice chairman Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister and member of the Democratic Party, Japan's largest opposition group, is keen to host a reciprocal visit to Tokyo.

For the Japanese side, Mitsunari Okamoto is expected to be a key person. The lower-house member of coalition partner Komeito first met with Trump as early as around 2000 while working for the Japan unit of U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs. Okamoto said Trump did not hesitate to ask basic questions. "I felt I could trust him," Okamoto recalled.

As a group, as an individual

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party had taken action even earlier. Toshimitu Motegi, the party's Policy Research Council chairman, visited the U.S. with other senior party figures just before Trump took office on Jan. 20. They met with Republican senators Dan Sullivan and Roger Wicker, both close allies of the president.

Katsuyuki Kawai, meanwhile, has visited the U.S. capital more than 20 times since Abe began his second administration in 2012 -- first as the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house, then, since 2015, the prime minister's special adviser.

Kawai has built particularly close ties with Republican Devin Nunes, who currently chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Kawai has visited Nunes' private home in California where he dined with his family. When the Republican congressman joined Trump's transition team, Kawai congratulated him directly. Kawai is now likely to seek his help in networking with the new administration.

  

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