Justin Trudeau’s first visit to Japan – a “holiday in Tokyo”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visit Japan last week for bilateral talks with his counterpart, Shinzo Abe, and Group of Seven summit in Ise-Shima, western Japan – his first ever visit to Japan and a full debut before the leaders of Canada’s advanced Western partners since taking office last fall.

Trudeau is the newest-comer among the G7 leaders, but enjoyed more media attention, at least outside the G7 conference, during his week-long visit. Japanese media covered his and his wife’s favorably, playing up the couple’s visits to the Meiji Shrine and the Imperial Palace and their “holiday in Tokyo.”

Soon arriving in Tokyo on Monday, May 23, with Sophie Gregoire, many days ahead of the other G7 leaders, Trudeau began making his investment pitch to Japanese automakers. He personally invited presidents of three major automakers – Toyota, Honda and Fuji Heavy Industries, the firm that makes Subaru – as well as top executives of auto part manufacturers to invest more in Canada.

The main target of his pitch was Fuji Heavy. He invited CEO Yasuyuki Yoshinaga to the official residence of Canada’s ambassador to Japan to encourage the automaker to invest and produce Subaru cars in Canada. Unlike Toyota and Honda, Fuji Heavy does not have an operation in Canada.

Yoshinaga told Trudeau very politely in a Japanese manner that he doesn’t have any plans to expand capacity in the near term, though he might in the future, according to the prime minister’s press secretary Cameron Ahmad. (Canadian Press in CBC News, May 24) Although with no commitment from Yoshinaga, it was a good first step toward bringing the Subaru maker into Canada. Trudeau tweeted that it was a productive meeting, though.

Canadian newspapers showed a photo of Trudeau being greeted by Honda Robot “Asimo” at Honda’s head office near the Canadian Embassy. He apparently liked it. “Diplomatic protocol at @Honda is unique,” the prime minister said on Twitter in describing his encounter with the humanoid robot.

Ontario, Canada, is home to assembly plants of five major automakers – Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, in addition to Toyota and Honda – as well as plants of many auto parts suppliers, forming one of the largest automotive industry cluster in North America.

Honda opened its assembly plant in Alliston, Ontario, in 1986 as the first plant by a Japanese carmaker; in 1998 it build a second plant and an engine plant in 2008, to make the Alliston facilities the main hub for overseas production of Honda’s best-selling Honda Civic. Last November, Honda announced it would invest $857 million for future production of the next Civic model.

Toyota also announced last year that it would invest $421 million for its Ontario plants in Cambridge and Woodstock to prepare for the near-future production of the next-generation Lexus model.

Toyota and Honda are rather exceptional cases, however. Investment in new North American plants has bypassed Canada this recent decade in favor of Mexico and the southern United States and even spending in existing factories has been lower in recent years than in previous decades, as the Globe and Mail reports in Greg Keenan’s article May 24.

Fuji Heavy, or Subaru, has only one vehicle-making factory in North America. Its sales in the U.S. market have doubled since 2010 to a record 582,675 in 2015. Canadian sales also soared by 68% to hit a record high of 46,609 last year. Although its plant in Lafayette, Ind., is already undergoing a US$140-million expansion that is designed to increase production to more than 300,000 vehicles annually, Subaru is a strong candidate to add even more North American capacity, according to industry analysts and officials. (Globe and Mail, May 24)

For Trudeau, meetings with Japanese auto executives may be more important in terms of domestic politics to appeal to Canadian voters and media as the prime minister working for Canada’s interest even outside the country – more appealing than his talks with his counterpart Abe or meetings with the leaders of the G7 economies.

Early in the morning, on May 24, Trudeau and his wife visited Meiji Shrine to “pay respect for Japan.” They were greeted by Shinto priests and led into the inner shrine, where they bowed deeply and sipped sacred sake before the shrine. Later they handwrote messages on “ema,” or wooden plaque to write prayer for the Gods and dedicated them where scores of such “ema” are hung. Trudeau wrote “May the great friendship Canada and Japan share benefit the people of our countries – and of the world – in the years to come.” His wife Sophie Gregoire wrote in French: “Courage, love, light and peace.” Before leaving the shrine, the couple hugged several Canadian tourists and told them, “It’s been going great. There is a deep friendship to grow on.” (National Post, May 24)

Then the couple visited the Imperial Place for audience with the Emperor and the Empress to enjoy conversation. Trudeau attended an official welcoming ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, reviewing the guard of honor, before plunging into bilateral talks with Abe, with whom Trudeau had met already three times since last fall – at APEC and G20 meetings in November, and the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington late March.

At their bilateral talks, Trudeau stressed the importance of his policy to boost infrastructure spending to stimulate economic growth, even allowing budget deficits – which was endorsed by Abe, who has been struggling to lift the Japanese economy out of the long deflation through fiscal measures as well as bold financial policies and structural reforms. On the other hand, as Canadian media reported, Trudeau did not agree to Abe’s preaches on how China’s behaviors in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are threatening the stability of the region, for fear of harming Canada’s economic and trade relations with China.  Columnist Mathew Fisher pointed out that Japan’s trade with China is nevertheless much larger than Canada’s trade with China. (National Post, May 24) Fisher said in another column (May 27) that Canada’s position on the China issue is causing concern in Tokyo and Washington but that “[Trudeau] is trying to play ball” with the U.S. and Japan in their hardline policy on handling China. How it will evolve after Trudeau’s visit to Japan on its China policy – change or no change – is interesting to watch.

Living up to the tradition and traits of his father and former prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Trudeau Junior surprised Canadians, and angered many conservative critics at home, the next day when he took a full day off, with no meetings and no work, to celebrate the 11th anniversary of wedding with Sophie Gregoire, three days ahead. They stayed at a traditional Japanese ryokan. Local TV stations ran photos of the couple in T-shirts taking a walk.

“The fact of the matter is we’ve been working extremely hard today and will be at the G7 meetings on Thursday and Friday, and in the middle of all this, I’m taking a moment to celebrate – on personal funds – my wedding anniversary with my wife. This is the kind of work-life balance that I’ve often talked about as being essential in order to be able to be in service of the country with all one’s very best and that’s certainly something I’m going to continue to make sure we do,” Trudeau told reporters. (CBC News, May 25)

This caused a sort of furor and outcry of criticism back in Canada, from critics and Conservative politicians. “It’s outrageous for Trudeau to take a day off in Japan when he is supposed to be working had for Canada’s interest wasting taxpayer’s money” was the main point of their angry message. However, according to CBC, Trudeau’s “holiday in Tokyo” could also be seen as part of a calculated strategy on his part to deliberately provoke discussion on an issue that resonates with many Canadians and could score him a few political points in the process. During the election campaign last year, Trudeau proposed more flexible work hours and new parental leave options. And just recently, his Liberal government announced it was looking into implementing flexible work hours for federally regulated workers in some sectors, such as banking, broadcasting and transportation.

The car carrying Trudeau to the bridge before the Grand Shines of Ise received big cheers, probably most enthusiastic, loudest and warmest, from well-wishers along the streets to greet the leaders of the G7 countries, Japanese TV stations reported. It was Justin Trudeau’s good debut to Japanese people – a debut typical to Trudeau tradition. I hope he (and his wife) enjoyed a holiday in Japan.


By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, TOCS senior consultant

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