John Rash
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump will meet at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday to discuss the threat from North Korea’s weapons program, as the allies attempt to maintain a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign on the reckless regime in Pyongyang.

It’s also likely that Abe will apply at least some minimum pressure on the American president, in hopes of persuading him to exempt Japan from the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.

To be sure, Japan’s economy — the world’s third-largest — is complex and diverse, extending far beyond the tariff-affected industries the two leaders will discuss. But after years of stubborn stagnation, Japan Inc. is finally growing again — and its leaders are keen to avoid any economic or relationship damage a tariff dispute might do.

Japan’s momentum today isn’t as monumental as it was when Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics. Then, Japan’s nascent economic power heralded a dynamic recovery from catastrophic defeat in World War II that would wow the world. Today, recent growth and predictions of further steady, if tepid, expansion suggest that when the Olympics return to Tokyo in 2020, the world will once again see a rising sun after years of deflationary dusk.

Glimpses of this new dawn were evident during a recent reporting trip I took, sponsored by the Foreign Press Center Japan, an independent, nongovernmental organization based in Tokyo. Beyond the improving economic statistics, the recovery of Japanese confidence was evident in interviews with corporate executives, Olympic organizers and public officials in the high-tech capital city — and among those who labor in other prefectures (provinces) to perfect precision manufacturing.

In Seki City, the roots of Japan’s resilience are found in the dedication of master craftsmen and women who understand well how Japanese traditions endure in modern manufacturing.

In the workplace of Kanefusa Fujiwara, a 25th-generation master swordsmith, “maximum pressure” of a different time-honored kind was applied to steel pulled from a white-hot fire.

Amid sparks flying in his spartan studio, Fujiwara rhythmically tapped out a beat that two white-robed apprentices matched with sledgehammers, as Fujiwara forged one of only about 10 swords he crafts annually. Some of them go to top Sumo wrestlers, another timeless Japanese tradition.

“The material is important, but how you treat it determines how the sword turns out,” said Fujiwara. He added: “You pay respect to the tools you use. The process is the art.”

One of the swordsmith’s sons will carry the tradition to its 26th generation.

Meanwhile, in nearby Yoro, another craftsman, Tamio Nawa, is in his 26th year fashioning a more modern weapon of sorts: baseball bats, for sporting-goods manufacturer Mizuno.

Nawa’s batmaking expresses the triumph of a globalized economy and culture, within which influences flow in multiple directions. American ash or maple wood is typically used in these Japanese-manufactured instruments for an American-born sport that’s long since gone international.

In fact, the most famous slugger swinging Mizuno’s bats is Japan’s 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, who will wear a Seattle Mariners cap (the ancient Mariner, some call him) when he becomes a first-ballot Hall of Famer (assuming he ever retires).

Wood shavings rather than sparks flew as Nawa lathed his latest bat for Suzuki. But while the product may differ, the process — and the profound reverence for his craft — reminded one of the swordsmith.

“You pay respect to the things you use, the tools you use,” Nawa said, adding that Suzuki does that, too. “He takes very good care of his bat and gloves. American players saw that and were very moved with the way he treats his tools.”

Then, after a pause, Nawa added: “That reflects the way we look at things in Japan.”

• • •

This Japanese way of looking at things seemed a common vision uniting other Japanese manufacturers and artisans I interviewed, including a Kyoto tofu master who makes the Japanese dish with timeless techniques (including stone-grinding soybeans); a sake brewer in Kobe; Japanese denim makers along “Jeans Street” in Kojima; and a septuagenarian who has built a tea-ceremony business that she says employs 60 women.

A high regard for tradition and craft helped Japan weather and emerge from the economic stagnation of its “lost decade” (“decades,” corrected some). But today’s relative recovery confronts new challenges — domestically, from demographics and politics, and internationally, from regional rivals like China.

And of course there’s another — the new challenge of relations with Japan’s great modern ally and advocate, the United States.

Abe was the first world leader to meet with Donald Trump after his election. Subsequent summits have seen the two hit the links together. But they may not be linked in their approaches to issues, as evidenced by President Trump blindsiding Abe on both diplomatic and trade fronts.

Two examples arose during my trip: Trump’s trade tariffs were announced, and although they eventually exempted several allies, Japan was not included. That kick came right after Trump had jumped the gun on his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The diplomatic risk was undertaken without giving Abe advance notice, despite Japan’s being a primary target of Kim’s bellicosity.

These blows to Japanese-­American ties followed even more significant jolts, including Trump’s truncation of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact Abe made considerable concessions to achieve, at the urging of the Barack Obama administration.

Trade relations matter internationally, but locally, too. Minnesota firms exported $1.3 billion in agricultural, mining and manufactured products to Japan last year, a jump of 30 percent over 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Geopolitical stability is also at stake.

The U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship was like “a one-story house,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, former Japanese ambassador to the United States. Its foundation was security, he said. And then the house “becomes a little full, so we decided to build a second story” — TPP and the climate accord. But then, Fujisaki said, “the one who said we had to build a second story, [the one] leading us in the negotiations said, ‘Hey, I’m out.’ ”

And so Japan, Fujisaki said, is going ahead itself, inking a now 11-nation pact in early March. “The base, security, is sound,” Fujisaki said, “so let’s go ahead and make the second story ourselves. If the Americans would like to come back we’ll say, ‘Welcome back.’ ” (The welcome mat just may need to be rolled out: On Thursday, Trump reportedly told his advisers to look into rejoining a revised TPP.)

The shift in U.S. attitudes won’t alter two transcendent trends in world affairs: globalization and a move to market economies, said Yuzaburo Mogi, chairman and honorary CEO of Kikkoman, whose soy sauce helped transcend postwar barriers between Japan and the West.

“In the short run, some move against [these trends],” Mogi said in Kikkoman’s Tokyo headquarters. “But eventually [they] will continue.”

Reflecting on Japan’s recovery, Mogi said that Abe “has so far succeeded, to some extent.” But the Japanese economy needs higher productivity, he added, especially since a perilously low birthrate is producing a population decline that could cause the country to contract economically as well.

Back in Seki City, a worker shortage is already challenging Kai industries, one of the many blade-related companies operating near the master swordsmith’s studio. Kai relies on robust exports, said managing director Katsuaki Yamada, and manufactures abroad as well, including at an Oregon plant.

Walking among highly skilled technicians (and a phalanx of robots), Yamada said that Kai is already adopting artificial intelligence to advance manufacturing — and address the scarcity of manpower.

• • •

Japan’s demographic dangers, raised repeatedly as a key concern, may not be apparent amid the throngs crowding Tokyo’s gleaming subway and bullet-train stations (a model for America as it considers a long-overdue infrastructure investment). But falling birthrates create challenges and change not just within the dwindling labor force, but for those retired from it.

Some of those retirees were among the seniors — including octogenarians — vigorously competing in the open division at the 70th annual Tokyo Table Tennis tournament that took place in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, one of the legacy venues from the 1964 Olympics.

Back then the facility hosted gymnastics, and medal winners from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, honored on a plaque there, may well have outlived the nations they competed for. All have fragmented into new countries whose teams will march in the Opening Ceremony of Tokyo’s 2020 games.

Tokyo 2020 is focused on the future, said spokesperson Masa Takaya during an Olympic-planning briefing.

“We believe in the inspiration of athletes and sport,” Takaya said. And apparently in avoiding problems that have plagued previous host cities. Unlike Rio and Sochi, where the race to finish venues seemed to be a competition itself, Tokyo will finish the 40 sites for 33 sports in a fashion as orderly as the pristine city itself. Japan’s Olympiad, Takaya touted, will be more than efficient; it will comprise “the most innovative Games in history.”

Mogi, the Kikkoman chairman, hopes that Tokyo 2020 showcases a Japan that’s “not too strong, but a healthy Japan, not just economically but politically.”

Abe is making a clean bill of political health lamentably difficult due to a complex school-land scandal that has swept up his wife, too. Opinion polls show sharp disapproval of the prime minister just as Abe is buffeted by Japan’s international challenges.

But on balance, Japan is relatively stable in a turbulent world scene, said Fujisaki, the former ambassador who is now president of the Japan-America Society.

Europe, the U.S. and Asia are “three big pillars,” he said. “Europe, with Brexit, [and] the U.S., with Mr. Trump’s policies, are not as predictable.” But with Asia, “and in particular Japanese policies, there’s some predictability, some stability.”

At their meeting, Abe may remind Trump of Japan’s postwar reliability. And in words that should remind Americans about the potency of their nation’s leadership role, Fujisaki hoped that the dependable, and admirable, legacy of the U.S. would be preserved.

“In history,” Fujisaki said, world affairs were dominated by “rivalry for territory, rivalry for money, rivalry for wealth or power.

“Now, what has emerged after the United States has appeared — because of your Founding Fathers’ philosophy — is democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and pursuit of happiness, now shared by many countries, and I think that was the strongest point of the United States. It’s not only the military; it’s not only the economy — the United States was leading the world, so we should not write it off and I think it’s wrong to say, ‘Everyone has their own way, I’m going to go my way.’

“The U.S. was leading the world with that philosophy and should stick with that; and as long as [it does], there is no rival country that can compete with the United States.”

Especially if it stands fast beside allies like Japan.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. He is at john.rash@startribune.com.