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Motegi's appointment as foreign minister in September, following his role as minister for economic and fiscal policy, has made him a standout candidate for the post- Abe era. (Photo by Keiki Kashiwabara)
Inside Japanese politics

Japan's 'Trump whisperer' emerges as potential Abe successor

Foreign Minister Motegi is a Harvard-educated savvy negotiator

MASAYA KATO and RINTARO TOBITA, Nikkei staff writers | Japan

TOKYO -- In the still-open race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, modern Japan's longest-serving leader, one name has quickly gained currency -- a name that U.S. President Donald Trump knows well.

"Too tough" was how Trump described Toshimitsu Motegi to Abe in a May telephone call, when Motegi was serving as the prime minister's point man for negotiating a trade deal with the U.S.

Motegi's success in pulling together that deal, signed by the two leaders in October and just ratified by Japan's parliament, has put a spotlight on a lawmaker known as one of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's top policy experts.

The Harvard-educated Motegi was first elected to parliament in 1993 -- the same year as Abe -- after working as a consultant for McKinsey & Co.

Only recently has Abe's frequent golf partner emerged as perceived contender for the prime minister's seat. Nikkei added him to its regular opinion poll in May, and he has yet to make large strides on the list so far.

But members of his LDP faction say his appointment as foreign minister in September, following his role as minister for economic and fiscal policy, has made him a standout candidate.

When foreign policy figures gathered for a reception in Tokyo on Dec. 2, Kenichiro Sasae, Japan's former ambassador to the U.S., drew laughs when he toasted Motegi. "I know that you have ambition to be prime minister," Sasae said.

Motegi held the trade portfolio in an earlier Abe cabinet, but his turn as negotiator this year brought him face-to-face with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Trump, a self-described "tariff man." Trump's hardball against China other trading partners had some Japanese government officials despairing of Tokyo's prospects for holding its own in a bilateral deal.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (second from left) and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands after a meeting in France on Aug. 25. Motegi was then serving as the prime minister's point man for negotiating a trade deal with the U.S.   © Kyodo

But the pessimists were proved wrong after the first round of cabinet-level talks in April. Motegi went on to defend Abe's red line on farm goods -- no tariff reductions below what had been agreed on in the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- against Lighthizer's repeated attempts to extract bigger concessions.

Though he grumbled about Motegi's toughness, Trump turned to him once for his opinion on the outlook for the U.S.-China trade war. It was after Trump's meeting with Abe at the August G-7 summit in France, during a briefing with Lighthizer and Motegi.

When the latter replied that he thought the trade war was hurting China more than it was the U.S., Trump said: "Right."

Motegi and Lighthizer hammered out provisions on farm goods to a broad agreement that satisfied the president -- an initial cut to Japanese tariffs on U.S. beef and pork to TPP levels, followed by reductions at the same pace as under the Pacifiic Rim deal, which includes American farm rival Australia.

When the two negotiators met again at the Kitano hotel in New York in September, Lighthizer congratulated Japan's newly minted foreign minister. Kissing Motegi's hand, he said the deal never would have come together without him.

The foreign affairs brief was one Motegi had been hoping for, allowing him to serve as the government's face to the world. But when Abe reshuffled his cabinet in 2018, he asked him to stay on for one more year in the economic policy post.

Since becoming foreign minister, Motegi has stayed mostly grounded in Japan, compared with his predecessor Taro Kono, who visited more than 120 countries in his roughly two years as Japan's top diplomat.

"I'm interested more in diplomacy that makes memories, rather than records," Motegi said in his inaugural speech as foreign minister, playing on the similarity between the two Japanese words, and on Kono's legacy. He may have been trying to sound prime ministerial. A person close to Motegi said he suppressed his desire to travel abroad in order "to make ratifying the trade agreement his first priority."

Like Kono, he is a confident English speaker. But while his predecessor often annoyed career Foreign Ministry officials by breaking with the established practice of speaking through an interpreter at important events, Motegi used Japanese when working-level negotiators were present.

When speaking one-on-one with Lighthizer, however, he brought his English skills to bear. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," he told his American counterpart in June, pushing for a deal that covered not just farm trade but Japan's top priority of industrial goods.

Hopes are high for Motegi in the LDP's Takeshita faction, which has not produced a prime minister since Keizo Obuchi in 1998. Motegi, who is a member of the faction, is seen as one of its best hopes to take the seat.

But while his abilities may garner attention from Japanese policymakers and business leaders, it has not translated into broad public recognition. Motegi polled only 2% in Nikkei's November voter opinion survey on prospective prime minister candidates, placing him eighth out of 10 names.

Kono ranked fourth at 8%. His avid use of Twitter and tough stance on South Korea appear to resonate with younger Japanese. By contrast, Motegi tends to come across as a career-oriented figure who gets the job done.

His prospects as Abe's successor will depend on his ability to make a mark in some of the most intractable issues in Japanese diplomacy, but also ones that grab the public eye: relations with South Korea and a territorial dispute with Russia, to name two.

"As foreign minister, I face the challenge of scaling a new, treacherous peak," Motegi said of the view to the next LDP presidential race in 2021. "I'm looking forward to what I will be able to see when I reach the top."

Inside Japanese Politics is the Nikkei Asian Review's column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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