President Donald Trump opened his second day in Japan by pushing for stronger, more equitable economic ties between the allies, yet his message in Asia threatened to be overshadowed by a tragic shooting back home.
Trump on Monday called the Texas church shooting that claimed at least 26 lives "an act of evil," denounced the violence in "a place of sacred worship" and pledged the full support of the federal government. He said that in a time of grief "Americans will do what we do best: we pull together and join hands and lock arms and through the tears and sadness we stand strong."
He then shifted to his message to a group of American and Japanese business leaders: the United States was open for business, but he wanted to reshape the nations' trade relationship.
"For the last many decades, Japan has been winning" the trade relationship, Trump said. "The U.S. has suffered massive trade deficits with Japan for many years."
He rebuked the current relationship, saying the trade deals were "not fair and not open." Trump downplayed the potentially contentious nature of the negotiations, though the Japanese government has not shown much appetite for striking a new bilateral trade agreement. Tokyo had pushed to preserve the Trans- Pacific Partnership, which Trump has abandoned.
"We will have more trade than anybody ever thought under TPP. That I can tell you," Trump said. He said the multinational agreement was not the right deal for the United States and that while "probably some of you in this room disagree ... ultimately I'll be proven to be right."
The president seemed at ease in front of his CEO peers, calling out some by name, teasing that the first lady had to sell her Boeing stock once he took office and calling for Japanese automakers to make more of their cars in America, though major companies like Toyota and Nissan already build many vehicles in the United States. He promised that profits would soon rise on both sides of the Pacific once new agreements were struck.
"We'll have to negotiate that out and it'll be a very friendly negotiation," Trump said, suggesting it would be done "quickly" and "easily."
Trump and his wife, Melania, then paid a formal state call on Japan's Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, at the Imperial Palace, which is set amid manicured pines and deciduous trees bursting with color in a park oasis at the heart of the bustling city.
The president nodded at the emperor and shook hands as he arrived. The Trumps were then ushered into a receiving room where they spoke to the imperial family with help from translators. Reporters were unable to hear the conversation.
Later Monday, Trump will highlight the specter of North Korea and try to put a human face on its menace, hearing from anguished families of Japanese citizens snatched by Pyongyang's agents. The White House hopes the meeting will elevate these heart-wrenching tales of loss to the international stage to help pressure North Korea to end its provocative behavior toward American allies in the region.
North Korea has acknowledged apprehending 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, but claims they all died or have been released. But in Japan, where grieving relatives of the abducted have become a symbol of heartbreak on the scale of American POW families, the government insists nearly 50 people were taken -- and believes some may be alive.
Trump has delivered harsh denunciations of the renegade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, belittling him as "Little Rocket Man" and threatening to rain "fire and fury" on his country if the belligerence continues. But Trump also has begun highlighting the plight of ordinary North Koreans.
"I think they're great people. They're industrious. They're warm, much warmer than the world really knows or understands," Trump told reporters on Air Force One while flying to Japan on Sunday. "And I hope it all works out for everybody."
North Korea is the critical issue looming over Trump's 12-day, five-country trip that will include direct talks with Trump's Chinese and Russian counterparts.
In Washington, a new analysis emerged from the Pentagon saying that a ground invasion of North Korea is the only way to locate and destroy, with complete certainty, all components of Kim's nuclear weapons program.
"It is the most bleak assessment," said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Two members of the U.S. Congress had asked the Pentagon about casualty assessments in a possible conflict with North Korea. A rear admiral on the Joint Staff responded on behalf of the Defense Department, and said the amount of casualties would differ depending on the advance warning and the ability of U.S. and South Korea forces to counter North Korean attacks.
Abe welcomed Trump on Sunday with an effusive display of friendship that now gives way to high-stakes diplomacy. The leaders, who have struck up an unlikely but easy rapport, played nine holes at the Kasumigaseki Country Club and, giving Trump a taste of home, ate hamburgers made with American beef.
Abe was one of the first world leaders to court President-elect Trump. The prime minister was the first to call after the 2016 election, and rushed to New York days later to meet Trump and present him with a pricey, gold Honma golf driver. The two also met on the sidelines of an international summit in Italy this spring and Trump hosted Abe in Florida. White House officials said Trump has spoken with Abe by phone more than any world leader, aside from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
"The relationship is really extraordinary. We like each other and our countries like each other," Trump said before dinner with Abe, who for this meal did show Trump traditional cuisine with a teppanyaki dinner. "And I don't think we've ever been closer to Japan than we are right now."
While there is worry in the region about Trump's unpredictable response to the threat posed by Kim, Trump made clear he did not intend to tone down his bellicose rhetoric even while in an Asian capital within reach of North Korea's missiles.
"There's been 25 years of total weakness, so we are taking a very much different approach," he said aboard Air Force One. The easy rapport with Japan could be strained if Trump acts aggressively on trade or Trump and Abe disagree on how best to approach North Korea.
During his campaign, Trump suggested Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons to defend itself, hinted the U.S. might not come to the nation's defense, and accused Japan of "killing us" on trade. He has dropped that antagonist language almost entirely since the election, but tensions remain.