President Trump’s assertion that Akie Abe, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, doesn’t even speak enough English to say “hello” quickly became a topic of ridicule after video emerged of her delivering a keynote address at a Ford Foundation event in 2014. As people wondered how Trump could possibly have sat next to Abe for “an hour and 45 minutes” without speaking to her once, some speculated that Abe might have simply pretended to not speak English in order to avoid having a conversation with the Donald.
Well, as it turns out, Abe’s perceived snub may not have been exactly what it seemed. While Japanese journalists and diplomats in Washington, D.C., agree that it’s patently false to say Abe speaks “zero” English, sources interviewed by The Washington Post — speaking on the condition of anonymity because they lacked firsthand knowledge and hadn’t spoken to Abe directly — have suggested that her command of English may not extend beyond simple conversational courtesies.
“I have only heard her speak in Japanese,” noted one Japan expert at a think tank. “In international meetings, she speaks through an interpreter. I expect she may be able to have a courtesy-type conversation, but you should not assume more than that.”
In footage of Abe’s past three visits to the U.S., The Washington Post observed, Abe had almost always used an interpreter. On Friday, BBC News reported that Abe had only ever accepted interviews in Japanese and that her “previous diplomatic encounters have almost always been through an interpreter.” Even in the oft-cited video of Abe delivering a keynote address in English, it can be seen that she was reading closely from a script.
While no one appears certain on Abe’s actual level of fluency in English, sources who spoke with the Post largely agreed that Abe giving Trump the silent treatment was more likely to be a product of her limited English and a desire not to be misunderstood. The Japan Times has also reported that Abe actually had an interpreter with her at the dinner, so it’s possible that if she spoke to Trump she only did so in Japanese. According to foreign affairs experts, it’s common for officials to decline to speak outside of their native language in order to avoid misspeaking.
According to the BBC, Japan’s Foreign Ministry has declined to provide an official comment on the incident, with a spokesman choosing to say only that they appreciated that “Trump stated that he enjoyed the evening with her, and she is really a lovely woman.”