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Japan cautiously moves toward stern response to Russia after years of trying to improve relations

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Feb. 24. (AFP/Getty Images)
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TOKYO — As the leaders of the world’s largest economies gather to discuss a united response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Japan — the lone Asian member of the Group of Seven nations — is cautiously working with Western allies after years of trying to avoid antagonizing Moscow.

In responding to the global crisis, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is facing his first major foreign policy test since he took the helm in October. Kishida, who navigated the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea as foreign minister, has pledged to take a “tough response” in lockstep with Western allies.

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Japan has been more decisive in joining G-7 countries’ condemnation of the Kremlin than in 2014, when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reluctantly joined Western allies to impose symbolic sanctions on Moscow amid his rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But it remains to be seen whether Japan’s actions this time will match its stern rhetoric.

“On one hand, Japan is really following the six other G-7 countries,” said Atsuko Higashino, European politics expert at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki. “At the same time, the Japanese government’s actions are really slow and small, and trying to limit the influence as much as possible.”

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Those actions include economic sanctions unveiled on Wednesday — before Russia’s attack — which included suspending the issuance of visas and freezing assets of individuals connected to the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, banning imports and exports for the two regions, and banning the sale of Russian sovereign debt in Japan.

These sanctions, again, appear to be largely symbolic. Several analysts struggled to identify whether, or how much, Russian debt is issued in Japan. The visa ban on the breakaway regions is largely moot because Japan is not issuing any visas to foreigners during its coronavirus border lockdown.

Japan has also agreed to send surplus liquefied natural gas reserves to European countries that depend on Russia for the supply and has pledged at least $100 million in emergency loans for Ukraine to show support.

After the sanctions announcement, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country expects “a stronger reaction” and “a stronger action” by Japan.

Japan is now considering further sanctions, including export bans on semiconductors and other high-tech products to Russia, Japanese news outlet NHK reported Thursday. Such an escalation of penalties, in line with the United States and other Western countries, would mark a significant step for Japan.

“If the situation further worsens, we must promptly consider further measures,” Kishida told the Japanese parliament on Thursday. “Japan’s cooperation with the U.S., E.U. and other European countries is very important to demonstrate the strong will of the international community uniting against Russia.”

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Japan’s desire to demonstrate its ability to work alongside Western allies over the Ukraine crisis is tied to its anxieties over China’s aggression in the region.

Leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party warned that if Japan’s response is lackluster, it cannot expect European allies to support them in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Conservative leaders called on Kishida to show that Japan will not stand for regional actors using force to change the territorial status quo — especially in the case of an increasingly aggressive China.

“In the Asian region, China is threatening the territory and territorial waters of other countries. And China is now watching how other countries are responding to Russia,” the editorial board of the conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun wrote last month. “We hope that Prime Minister Kishida will demonstrate Japan’s strong stance that it will not allow the status quo to be changed by force.”

Japan has long feared taking actions that would push Russia closer to China and has sought to leave room for negotiations with Moscow about a long-running territorial dispute over a small chain of islands off Hokkaido, in northern Japan.

Japan also relies on Russia for energy imports. In 2020, 8.2 percent of Japan’s LNG imports and 14.5 percent of coal imports came from Russia, Nikkei Asia reported. Japan said this week that it holds about 240 days’ worth of oil reserves and has no concern that the crisis will immediately disrupt its energy supply.

Former prime minister Abe, who stepped down in 2020, worked to improve relations with Russia, meeting with Putin 27 times over eight years in an effort to make Moscow a strategic partner. The bilateral relationship has cooled since those years, as Russia did not alter its relations with China or its stance toward the territorial dispute with Japan.

“Japan is already doing much more than it did in 2014,” said Sheila Smith, Japanese foreign policy and politics expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Abe’s overtures to Putin at the time really got in the way of a strong Japanese performance in the G-7.”

This time, Japan will be asked to invest far more in standing up to the Russian aggression, Smith said. Kishida brings considerable experience with the complexities of balancing Japanese-Russian relations, as the longtime foreign minister under Abe, she said.

“He was kind of the balancing act to Abe. When Abe was firmly focused on Putin, Kishida was the guy who showed up at the G-7, Kishida was the one working the channels of, what can we do, what can’t we do,” she said.

Some analysts say Japan needs to step it up big time. Higashino, the European politics expert, said Japan’s diplomacy on the matter has been “pathetic.” For example, earlier this month, Japanese legislators adopted a resolution expressing solidarity with Ukraine but did not directly name Russia.

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In a joint statement, G-7 leaders promised Russia would face “massive consequences” in the case of an invasion — but Japan’s action doesn’t hold up, said James Brown, an expert in Russian-Japanese relations at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo. Brown said Japan’s actions thus far seem quick and decisive only because the bar was set so low in 2014.

“The territorial dispute, those talks, are already going nowhere. China and Russia are already incredibly close partners. The attempt to be conciliatory toward Russia didn’t work. I don’t think Japan has much to lose by taking a tougher stance,” Brown said.

But some experts say Japan’s approach is in line with that of its allies in gradually intensifying sanctions, noting that Russia’s actions mark the beginning of the conflict.

“We need collective measures to deter the future aggression by the Russians,” said Kunihiko Miyake, president of the Tokyo think tank Foreign Policy Institute and research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.

“So whether Japan’s measures are enough or not is not a good question. Whether we will continue to work with other like-minded nations to form a concerted collective measure or behavior against Russia, that is something we could ask, and I think Japan is in that direction,” Miyake said.

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.