During his state visit this weekend, Donald Trump has been shaking Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hand so often and so aggressively and in such prolonged fashion that it’s already become the stuff of internet punchlines. After one particularly laborious handshake, Abe could be seen turning away from Trump and rolling his eyes. Some have assumed Trump is merely being goofy. But it may instead be a malicious attempt on Trump’s part at mocking or exploiting Japanese norms.
If you’re familiar with handshake traditions in Asia, and there’s reason to believe an international businessman like Donald Trump would be, then you’re aware that a firm or aggressive handshake is considered far outside the cultural norm in Japan. For instance, eDiplomat explains that “the Japanese handshake is limp and with little or no eye contact.” USA Today quotes experts who caution that when visiting Asia, one should try to avoid delivering a handshake that is “too firm.”
The implication could not be much more clear: Trump is committing an international faux pas by aggressively shaking Prime Minister Abe’s hand. The question is whether Trump is doing it out of clueless ignorance, or whether he’s knowingly trying to make Abe uncomfortable. While Trump has been seen giving exaggerated handshakes to other public figures including Neil Gorsuch, he seems to be going out of his way emphasize his handshakes with Abe in the most cartoonish fashion of all, suggesting it may not be a coincidence. That same question also applies to why Trump keeps getting Abe’s name wrong.
While the American media has largely referred to him as Shinzo Abe, the Encyclopedia Brittanica refers to him as Abe Shinzo. But while there is no universal agreement as to which of his names should come first, what is agreed upon is that “Shinzo” is his personal name and “Abe” is family name. Yet Donald Trump has referred to him on Twitter as “Prime Minister Shinzo” on Twitter, when the universally agreed upon correct nomenclature is “Prime Minister Abe.”
Are the aggressive handshake and the incorrect name merely instances of Donald Trump not understanding the importance of international customs? Or is Trump knowingly exploiting these customs in malicious fashion just to screw with the Prime Minister of Japan? It’s not entirely clear which of these would be more disconcerting for someone in Trump’s role.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report