TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, becoming the first postwar Japanese leader to visit an active war zone and the final member of the Group of Seven advanced nations to make the trek to Ukraine’s capital to show support.
The remarkable split screen of the two Asian leaders holding summits on opposite sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict underscored Kishida’s linking of security concerns in Europe and East Asia with an eye toward China’s growing assertiveness in the region, and his efforts to demonstrate his country as a leading Asian nation in siding with the West against Russia.
The timing of Kishida’s trip was initially coincidental, according to those familiar with the planning, but it nonetheless presented a symbolic and stark contrast to China and highlighted how the Russian invasion has reshaped security calculations in Asia.
It also solidified how Tokyo, at least for now, has abandoned its years-long efforts to improve relations with Russia — a shift in strategy that became apparent in the early days of the invasion when Japan responded in lockstep with the largest Western economies in issuing sanctions against Moscow.
Kishida met with Zelensky and visited Bucha, where more than 400 civilians are said to have been killed by the Russians last year. Kishida laid a wreath for the victims and expressed his “indignation.” And he pledged that Japan would send another $30 million in nonlethal equipment to Ukraine.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an aggression that shakes the foundation of the international order, which I strongly feel after I visited Kyiv and Bucha today, where I saw the tragedy of the Russian invasion with my own eyes,” Kishida said in remarks alongside Zelensky.
Zelensky lauded Kishida’s visit, calling the Japanese leader “a truly powerful defender of the international order and a longtime friend of Ukraine.”
Russia’s actions have triggered a deep alarm in Japan that has accelerated its debate over defense and security policies and have shown the Japanese that a Chinese takeover of Taiwan could be a reality. In December, Japan adopted sweeping changes to its national security strategy and a major ramp-up of its defense budget, a dramatic move to shed its longtime postwar pacifist constraints.
Kishida has repeatedly warned that “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow,” expressing his concerns about other regional actors violating international norms without explicitly naming China, which remains Japan’s largest trading partner.
Last summer, as then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in Japan following her visit to Taiwan, China fired five ballistic missiles into Japanese waters for the first time, on top of multiple incursions by sea and air in the waters surrounding Japan — seemingly affirming Kishida’s concerns.
“Whether by design, it is certainly symbolic,” Robert Ward, senior fellow for Japanese security studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said of the timing of Kishida’s visit. “You have a Japanese prime minister going to a European war zone ... the physical underlining of the point that Kishida has made: ‘Ukraine today, East Asia tomorrow.’”
The Japanese leader’s visit comes as he seeks to form security groupings throughout the Indo-Pacific and with European countries, including an agreement between Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy to develop new fighter jets and a potential security pact among the Philippines, Japan and the United States.
“Prime Minister Kishida stands with freedom, and Xi stands with a war criminal. Which Pacific leader is the right partner for a brighter future?” U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.
In May, Japan will host the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, where the Russian invasion and China’s growing military and economic influence are expected to be at the top of the agenda.
Kishida boarded a train in Poland on Tuesday after departing India for a summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In India, Kishida vowed to strengthen ties between leading economies and emerging economies that have maintained relations with both China and Russia.
“It is difficult to think of another time when Japan has had such a strategically important role in the G-7, not just economically but also geopolitically,” Ward said. “Kishida is rightly trying to build a very, very broad coalition ... to rally the like-minded and the wavering behind the things he wants to achieve.”
The Japanese prime minister’s office had not previously announced the trip, but discussions and planning for a potential visit were underway since Zelensky invited Kishida in early January. For weeks, Kishida faced pressure from within and outside Japan to make the visit. But some government officials had raised security concerns.
“From our point of view, it’s extremely important … for [Kishida] to visit Ukraine and see it with his own eyes,” Sergiy Korsunsky, the Ukrainian ambassador to Japan, said in a news conference last month in Tokyo. “I very much hope the visit will take place.”
Last month, Japan pledged another $5.5 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine on top of the $600 million in financial support it had already provided to Kyiv since the invasion. Japan also has taken unprecedented steps to accept Ukrainian refugees, despite its long-standing refusal to open its doors to evacuees from conflict zones.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.