Theresa May says goodbye to old friends at Japan’s G20

Theresa May makes her final bow on the world stage in Japan, where she is attending the G20 heads of government meeting in Osaka. It’s a funny place for it all to end.

Japan’s second city prides itself as the country’s comedy capital. It is home to Japan’s ‘manzai’ tradition – a slapstick straight man/funny man double act which involves a lot of head slapping and cross talk. Besides their sense of humour, Osakans are known for their garrulousness, gaudy clothing and their suspicion of haughty, overly serious Tokyo. Think of Glasgow’s relationship to Edinburgh, or Newcastle’s to London, and you’re not far off.

To ram home the message of Osaka’s distinctive quirkiness and to welcome the distinguished visitors, a truly bizarre English rap video has been released by a troop of Osakan grandmothers (obachans). It’s called ‘Here is Osaka wonderful city’. The old ladies employ charmingly broken English to boast of their home city’s friendliness, and take a swipe at the less welcoming capital. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s genuinely hilarious.

Less amusing in the build up to the summit was a terrorist alert issued after a policeman was stabbed and his gun taken in an Osaka suburb a week ago. Incidents like this are so rare in Japan that it dominated the news for days and threatened to overshadow the summit entirely. Thankfully the attacker was swiftly apprehended and the gun retrieved.

The serious business of the G20 will be the latest episode of the ongoing and always amusing Trump Shinzo Abe manzai. The North Korean situation has been supplanted in the list of priorities by the middle east, so this time Trump is keen for Abe’s assistance as middle man between the US and Iran. He is also seeking a trade deal to be used to promote his reelection bid for 2020. Abe, in turn, is still seeking assurances from Trump on tariffs ahead of his crucial elections in July.

As usual with Trump, he has upset the delicate harmony (wa) in advance by making alarming remarks. On his visit last month he had to deny making threats about possible trade sanctions; this time he has apparently mused on the possibility of withdrawing from the US/Japan defence pact, which he sees as unequal.

Much attention will also be on Xi Jinping and his meeting with the Donald. The two leaders have been urged to reach some kind of accommodation on trade to prevent another global financial crash. Trump’s customarily pithy opening gambit to this was to say that China were desperate for a deal as their economy was ‘going down the tubes’.

In pre-summit meeting between Xi and Abe, the two agreed to work together to promote free trade, which has been interpreted as a veiled hint to Trump to back off from his sanctions threats. With all sides urging progress, and the Japanese eager for some kind of success story to emerge from the summit, there are hopes that progress will be made.

As for poor Theresa, she has hardly earned a mention in the Japanese press, and there is a feeling that she is just making up the numbers. There is a chance to say a fond farewell to Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. And she may have been inspired in her choice of future career by the example of former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso, who chaired the earlier forum of finance ministers. Aso, generally considered a hopeless PM, has made a remarkable comeback and at 78 is the Japanese chancellor. Perhaps there is life after Downing Street?

May looks happy enough in the official photographs (apart from the shot of her shaking hands with Putin) and is perhaps enjoying some respite from the never-ending Brexit imbroglio. Ordinarily the recent comments by Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono begging the Brits to avoid a no-deal Brexit as it would devastate the UK based Japanese automotive industry would have seen her besieged.

As it is, the question of Brexit has hardly been mentioned. And if it is all May has to do is shrug her padded shoulders and use a simple but amusing Japanese phrase:

‘Kankei nai’, which in this context means: ‘Not my problem’.

If she does that, she may get a laugh in the funniest city in Japan.

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