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Japan PM to meet Toyota president before Trump summit

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes a policy speech at the start of the ordinary session of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Stanley White

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would meet the head of Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> on Friday, as Tokyo compiles a plan to ward off U.S. criticism of Japanese trade policy before a summit with President Donald Trump next week.

Trump, who has pledged to put America first when it comes to trade, has rattled Japan by criticizing the low number of U.S. cars sold in Japan and by demanding that more cars sold in the United States be made locally.

Abe, speaking in parliament on Thursday, said the meeting was arranged months ago, but this will do little to quell speculation that he will pass on some instructions to Japan's top auto maker about how to avoid Trump's protectionist ire.

The stakes are high because Japan's politically powerful auto industry is a major contributor to exports and economic growth. If Trump curbs Japanese auto exports, either from Japan or from plants in Mexico, this could slow Japan's economy.

"I did not suddenly summon the head of Toyota (because of U.S. criticism)," Abe said.

"This meeting was planned months ago. I cannot tell private-sector companies what to do. The United State thinks the same way."

Abe and Toyota President Akio Toyoda are set to meet at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at a hotel restaurant in Tokyo to exchange views on auto production in North America and other issues, a person involved in the meeting arrangements said.

Some Japanese policymakers worry Trump will consider limits on Japanese auto imports, which make up about 75 percent of Japan's trade surplus with the United States.

Toyota should be considered a U.S. manufacturer because it already makes cars in the United States, Toyoda said on Thursday. Toyoda also told reporters that his meeting with Abe was unconfirmed.

Japan's government is hammering out plans to show Trump its firms are ready to create U.S. jobs, according to a document whose contents were revealed to Reuters.

Abe will visit Washington on Feb. 10 for the talks, at which Trump is expected to seek quick progress toward a bilateral trade deal.

Japan is also considering increasing U.S. shale oil or gas imports, two sources said, which could be another way to ease U.S. concern about its trade deficit with Japan.

(Reporting by Stanley White, Yoshifumi Tekamoto; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Clarence Fernandez)