Japan tees up Abe’s ex-interpreter to help chart course with Trump

By Thomson Reuters Mar 25, 2024 | 8:33 PM

By Tim Kelly and John Geddie

TOKYO (Reuters) – Sunao Takao was the loyal interpreter at Shinzo Abe’s side, helping Japan’s then-leader to understand Donald Trump as they navigated contentious issues while riding around in golf carts.

Now, as a second Trump presidency becomes a real prospect, Japanese officials are preparing to deploy the Harvard-educated Takao to bolster engagement with the Republican candidate’s campaign ahead of the Nov. 5 U.S. election, hoping to forestall any policy shocks for Tokyo.

Six people with knowledge of the matter said Takao, who is nearing the end of a posting to Japan’s embassy in Beijing, is likely to move to a U.S.-focused role, enabling Tokyo to leverage his knowledge of and familiarity with Trump. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter publicly.

Four of the sources said some officials want Takao sent to Japan’s embassy in Washington, though two said he might do the job from Tokyo. Talks are ongoing and decisions on location and timing have not been finalised, four of the people said.

Takao did not address questions from Reuters about potential roles. Japan’s foreign ministry said it was watching the U.S. election “with great interest” but would not comment on specific personnel.

The high-level discussions about the future of a mid-ranking bureaucrat underscore what analysts say are feverish attempts by Japanese officials to prepare for a U.S. election outcome that they worry could stoke trade and geopolitical tensions.

America’s closest ally in Asia is concerned Trump may seek a deal with China, revive protectionist trade measures and demand more money for the upkeep of U.S. forces in Japan, Reuters reported last month.

A new phrase, “hobotora”, meaning “likely Trump”, has gained popularity in Japanese political and media speak in recent weeks, supplanting “moshitora”, or “possibly Trump”.

Joshua Walker, president of Japan Society, a New York-based non-profit that promotes U.S.-Japan relations, said efforts by Japanese officials to connect with people they consider close to Trump had reached a “fever pitch”.

“They know the Biden people: it’s a pretty easy and small group of people they need to stay in touch with. So they basically have focused all their effort on the Trump side,” he said. “This is a full court press.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Takao has worked previously with Japan’s ambassador to the U.S., Shigeo Yamada, who took up the post late last year with instructions to connect with the Trump campaign, Reuters reported in February.

In addition to talks about Takao, officials in Japan’s U.S. embassy in recent months have met with Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and ex-national security adviser Robert O’Brien, according to one of the sources and an additional person familiar with the matter.

Those talks were aimed at trying to understand Trump’s foreign policy plans and the make-up of a future administration.

Meadows and O’Brien did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Japan’s embassy in Washington said he could not comment on specific personnel.

Meanwhile, Taro Aso, a senior member of Japan’s ruling party who was deputy prime minister during Trump’s presidency, is weighing another visit to the U.S. in coming months to meet Republican lawmakers close to Trump and prepare for a possible Trump administration, two of the six people said.

Japan has made such a pre-emptive push before. Abe was the first foreign leader to meet then president-elect Trump in 2016, and the pair went on to form close ties. Abe was assassinated in 2022.

The current outreach is occurring at a sensitive time for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is scheduled to visit the U.S. next month at the invitation of Trump’s Democratic rival, President Joe Biden.

The U.S. and Japanese leaders are expected to agree to strengthen bilateral military cooperation, Reuters reported this week.


Takao interpreted for Abe in dozens of meetings with Trump between 2016 and 2020, including at Trump Tower, in the presidential car nicknamed “The Beast”, at a sumo match in Japan, and during the pair’s golf outings.

The civil servant, who was raised in the U.S. and returned to Japan as a teenager, spent hours studying footage of Trump – and the rules of golf – ahead of those meetings, according to one of the six sources and another person with knowledge of the matter.

That research smoothed the leaders’ exchanges in a way that caught the attention of Trump and his aides.

Takao “rendered the Japanese leader’s upbeat staccato into resonant English, even while clinging to the back of a racing golf cart”, Matt Pottinger, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July 2022.

Pottinger told Reuters that Takao “is a superb diplomat and was very effective as the English-language ‘voice’ of Prime Minister Abe”.

“He will be an asset to Japan in whatever role he is assigned,” he added.

After one of his golf outings with Abe in 2019, Trump jokingly referred to Takao as junior prime minister, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Despite lacking fluency in Mandarin, Takao in 2021 was appointed political counsellor in Japan’s embassy in Beijing, where he became well-known among Western diplomats.

Takao, who also served previously as second secretary in Japan’s U.S. embassy early in his career, is a workaholic regarded by some as a superstar in Japan’s foreign service, according to two people who know him.

His credentials aside, however, other officials voiced reservations about what Takao could achieve given the rigid hierarchy in Japan’s bureaucracy and Trump’s predilection for dealing directly with foreign leaders.

“Donald J. Trump is well acquainted with Takao-san, who may remind him of the joyful times spent with his late friend, Prime Minister Abe,” said Tomohiko Taniguchi, a former special adviser to Abe.

“Yet, Trump’s preference for direct dealings with a country’s leader means that Mr. Kishida will need to put in significant effort to garner friendship and trust from Mr. Trump.”

(Reporting by Tim Kelly and John Geddie; Additional reporting by Sakura Murakami and Yoshifumi Takemoto in Tokyo and David Brunnstrom and Nathan Layne in Washington; Editing by David Crawshaw)