TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declined Monday to say if he had nominated US President Donald Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, though he also emphasized he did not deny doing so.
Trump's assertion Friday that Abe had nominated him for the honor and sent him a copy of the letter has raised criticism in Japan.
Questioned in parliament about Trump's claim that he had done so, Abe said, "In light of the Nobel committee's policy of not disclosing recommenders and nominees for 50 years, I decline to comment."
Neither the prime minister nor his spokesman denied Trump's comment.
"I never said I didn't" nominate him, Abe said in response to a follow-up question by Yuichiro Tamaki, a lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party for the People.
Tamaki said in a tweet Monday that given the lack of progress on various issues with North Korea that he was concerned such a nomination would "send the wrong message to North Korea and the rest of international society."
In responding to Tamaki's questions in parliament, Abe praised Trump, saying he "has been decisively responding toward resolving North Korea's nuclear and missile problems, and last year he held historic US-North Korea summit talks."
Abe added that Trump had also passed on to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Japan's own concerns about past abductions of Japanese citizens by the North, saying "he and the entire White House also actively cooperated in resolving the issue."
"I highly praise President Trump's leadership," Abe said.
Trump's claim that Abe had sent him a "beautiful copy" of a letter sent to the Nobel committee could not be immediately verified.
The government's top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, echoed Abe's remarks in refusing further comment.
The situation is awkward for Abe at a time when his government is under fire for allegedly manipulating data on wage increases to suggest his economic policies were yielding better results than was actually the case.
"Being Trump's closest friend among world leaders has not worked out too well for Abe," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. "He's not making Abe look very good."
The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported Sunday, citing unidentified government sources, that Abe had nominated Trump at the US president's request.
Former US President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, his first year in office, for laying out a US commitment to "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Trump complained Friday that Obama was there "for about 15 seconds" before he was awarded the prize.
The deadline each year for nominations is midnight, Jan. 31. According to the website of the Nobel committee, there are 304 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019. It said 219 are individuals and 85 are organizations.
Trump's landmark June 2018 summit with Kim in Singapore was replete with pomp but thin on substance. The president's comments Friday drew speculation that South Korean President Moon Jae-in might have been the one who nominated the president.
Kim Eui-kyeom, Moon's spokesman, said he had not, and that he was unlikely to do so.
But Kim said Moon believed Trump "has sufficient qualifications to win the Nobel Peace Prize" for his work toward peace between North and South Korea, which have yet to sign a peace treaty after their 1950-53 war.
The US is Japan's ally and anchor for national defense and Abe has assiduously cultivated cordial ties with Trump. He was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after he won the 2016 presidential election.
North Korea has refrained from nuclear and missile tests since early last year. That's a welcome development for Japan, which sits well within the range of its missiles and has sometimes had test rockets land in its territorial waters.
Abe personally has a large political stake in making progress in resolving the abduction issue with North Korea, an important one for his nationalist political base.
The Nobel committee chooses the recipient of the prize in early October by a majority vote. The prize is awarded on Dec. 10, in Oslo, Norway. (AP)